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California lawmakers approve paid COVID sick leave bill

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Legislature has approved a bill requiring workers to receive up to two weeks of paid vacation if they become ill from the coronavirus.

Lawmakers approved the bill on Monday and Governor Gavin Newsom is expected to sign it.

The bill applies to companies with 26 or more employees.

California had a similar law last year, but it expired in September. The new bill would be retroactive to January 1 of this year.

Lawmakers also approved major tax cuts for businesses, which would save them about $5.5 billion. Those cuts were supposed to take effect next year, but lawmakers voted to make them this year.

The law would impact employees like Crystal Orozco, who fell ill with the coronavirus last month. Orozco missed nearly two weeks of his pay as a team leader at a fast food restaurant and had to ask family members for a loan to help pay his rent.

“My check was literally $86,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god.'”

Orozco may soon get back pay from her company for the time she was sick.

At the start of the pandemic, state and federal laws required employers to give their workers paid time off if they fell ill with the coronavirus. But many of these laws have expired. The California law expired last September.

After the omicron variant of the virus fueled a surge of new cases, unions lobbied state officials to revive the law, and Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom struck a deal to do so with legislative leaders.

Orozco, a member of the Service Employees International Union, said she was denied paid time off when she fell ill.

At least six of the 16 people who work at his restaurant – more than a third of the workforce – had symptoms of coronavirus or were absent from work because of the virus, according to a complaint filed by the workers with the national and local authorities. The complaint is still pending, Orozco said.

Orozco said she and her husband had to skip their car insurance payments and used borrowed money to help pay their rent. If the legislature approves the law, she said it would let her “know that I am able to repay my family who let me borrow this money.”

“It’s going to help everyone else in the same industry (which is) cash-strapped,” she said.

California would become the fourth state to require paid time off for workers who fall ill with the coronavirus. Similar mandates are still in effect in Massachusetts, Colorado and New York, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Additionally, five other states — Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington — have paid sick leave laws that, while not COVID-specific, can be used to cover coronavirus leave.

Business groups have strongly opposed the laws, arguing that the government is forcing employers to pay the costs of the pandemic.

But in a separate vote, California lawmakers are expected to approve multiple corporate tax cuts on Monday that will save them about $5.5 billion.

This tax cut was due to take place at the end of this year, but lawmakers will now vote on whether to implement it a year earlier. The move helped win support from business groups, which had previously opposed paid sick leave laws because they believed it would cost employers too much.

Now, the California Chamber of Commerce has said it backs the sick leave proposal because it’s “a balanced approach to protecting both workers and our economy.”

“Healthy workers and healthy customers are good for business,” said Jennifer Barrera, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce.

California’s sick leave proposal gives workers up to a week of paid time off if they catch the coronavirus or care for a sick family member. They can only get a second week off if they or their family members test positive. Employers must pay for and provide the test. The proposal only applies to companies with 26 or more employees and will expire on September 30.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus has caused a sharp increase in new cases and hospitalizations, primarily among the state’s unvaccinated population. The number of cases peaked in January when the state recorded a seven-day average of more than 118,000 cases, the highest since the pandemic began.

Hospitalizations also increased, but did not exceed previous highs, a sign that the omicron variant was not as severe. Still, Newsom has asked the Legislature for more money to respond to the outbreak.

Last year lawmakers gave Newsom about $1.7 billion to spend on the virus this year and lawmakers will vote Monday on whether to give him another $1.9 billion.

The money will be used to pay for things like testing, vaccine distribution and hospital staffing.

“This, I think, proves how little we knew,” when lawmakers approved the budget last year, said Erika Li, chief deputy at the California Department of Finance. “Delta (variant) may have been on the horizon, omicron was not. This is the state’s response to these public health crises.”

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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