More sick days and family leave? California lawmakers push to improve work-life balance

Oscar Tang, 35, watches over kids as they play at Modern Education Family Childcare in San Francisco on Thursday, January 20, 2022. The center had to close recently out of precaution after a child who attends the center had tested positive for COVID-19.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, California’s three days of paid sick leave for full-time workers was not enough to cover quarantines or vaccine side effects. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law requiring companies to offer as much as 80 hours of supplemental sick leave for employees. 

The temporary measure was restored in early 2022 due to the Omicron surge, but expired at the end of the year. 

Now, advocates are urging state lawmakers to increase paid sick leave and expand who can receive it to promote public health and equity.

It’s one of a series of bills before the Legislature that supporters say would improve work-life balance for Californians. Opponents, however, say the bills are an unreasonable burden to put on small businesses. 

Newsom wouldn’t say Monday whether he would sign the sick leave bill if it’s passed. He did say that he broadly supports doing more for families, but also recognizes the cost. 

“We have a parents’ agenda, and paid sick leave is certainly part of that,” he said after a bill signing event. “We look forward to doing more in the future. We just have to sort of balance those priorities against others in the short term.”

Senate Bill 616 would raise the number of paid sick days that can be used by employees from three to seven days per year and expand how sick days are accrued and used. Under existing law, employees can accrue as many as seven days per year. This bill would increase the total to 14 days a year, and allow seven sick days to roll over to the next year, up from three days. 

The bill, approved by the state Senate on a 27-9 vote and by an Assembly committee, is before the Assembly appropriations committee. Since being introduced, about 150 organizations have come out in support of the measure, while more than 60 groups oppose it. 

According to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, “paid sick leave guarantees are seen by many public health experts as one of the strongest tools in stopping the spread of infectious diseases,” while the Economic Policy Institute finds that low-wage workers are particularly susceptible to having limited paid sick leave. 

“COVID-19 presents a perfect example of why expanding paid sick leave is not simply good public policy, but a dire necessity,” bill author Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Long Beach Democrat, said in a statement included in the bill analysis. She added that “studies have found that, for those without earned sick days, missing three and a half days of work equates to losing a family’s entire monthly grocery budget.” 

In 2014, California became the second state in the nation to adopt a paid sick leave policy, but now provides less paid sick leave than 15 states and many of its own cities, including San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley

The California Work & Family Coalition, a co-sponsor of the bill, argues that it is “a commonsense change…ensuring that California workers do not have to choose between their health and paying the bills.” 

However, a coalition of organizations said in an opposition letter that many small businesses have not recovered from the pandemic and are now dealing with inflation. 

The opposition coalition includes the California Chamber of Commerce, which has placed the bill on its 2023 “job killer” list because it “imposes new costs and leave requirements on employers of all sizes.”

The Chamber supported another bill, which failed in committee, that would have increased paid sick leave from three to five days — instead of seven — and would have allowed employers to ask for documentation from workers. “The more than 100 percent expansion is something that really not all businesses can afford to do,” said Ben Golombek, the Chamber’s executive vice president for policy.

Jenya Cassidy, director of the Work & Family Coalition, says that depriving basic rights and dignity to workers should not be a strategy used by small businesses to grow. 

“Your business grows when your workers can thrive, care for their families and care for themselves while keeping their jobs,” Cassidy said in an interview. “We just need to normalize people not working themselves to death.” 

Expanding family leave 

Another bill would expand who can take as long as eight weeks a year in paid family leave to include “chosen family” — loved ones whom people consider family but without a legal or biological relationship. Assembly Bill 518 would also allow an employee to take paid time off to care for an elderly neighbor, cousin or friend, for example. 

Currently, family members who can receive paid leave are children, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, spouses, or domestic partners. The leave can be to care for a baby or a seriously ill person, or during a military deployment.  

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 82% of American households depart from the traditional nuclear family structure, and the number of multigenerational and LGBTQ homes is increasing. 

“​​California’s current Paid Family Leave program reflects an outdated nuclear family model and only allows workers to receive partial income replacement to care for certain narrowly defined family members,” Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, an Oakland Democrat who authored the measure, said in a statement included in the bill analysis. “This definition leaves out both chosen family and extended family members such as aunts, uncles and cousins.”

Wicks has history on this issue. She became a national symbol of work-life balance in 2020, when she had to bring her infant to the Assembly floor to vote on a parental leave bill because she wasn’t allowed to vote by proxy.

Proponents argue that the bill is important for California’s low-paid workers, who cannot afford to take unpaid leave to care for their chosen and extended family. They also say that this bill adopts definitions that are inclusive to aging adults and LGBTQ families who rely on a wide network of caregivers and multigenerational households, which people of color are more likely to live in. 

Craig Pulsipher, legislative director at Equality California, a statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, says that recent public health crises have shaped the policy in this bill: During the mpox outbreak last year, some gay men lost their income because they contracted the disease, formerly known as monkeypox, or because they had to care for someone with it.

“These experiences reinforced for me how important protections are for the LGBTQ community, many of whom don’t have close family members or biological children,” said Pulsipher. 

According to a study by the Center for American Progress, fewer than half of LGBTQ Americans are likely to rely on their biological family for support when sick, while fewer than one-third are likely to rely on a spouse to whom they are legally married.

While there is no federal law that guarantees the right to paid leave for caregiving responsibilities, states including New Jersey, Washington, Connecticut, Oregon and Colorado have adopted expansive definitions of family in their paid family and medical leave policies. 

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks poses for a photo with her newborn baby on the Assembly floor after her request to vote remotely was rejected on Aug. 31, 2020. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

More than 80 groups publicly support this measure, while two groups oppose it, including the Sacramento-based California Landscape Contractors Association, which advocates for landscape contractors, architects, designers and their vendors. 

The group argues that the bill’s use of the term “designated person” is vague and ripe for misuse by workers who can claim the leave benefit for potentially anyone they know. 

In an opposition letter to the bill, the association wrote that “small businesses often do not have or can’t afford full-time human resource professionals to manage and track all the various requirements coming from new Sacramento employment regulations,” referring to the provision in the bill that allows the “designated person” in need of care to be identified by the employee at the time the claim for benefits is filed. 

Sandra Giarde, the executive director of the organization, said that it is not opposed to making room for LGBTQ and multigeneral relationships by adding to the relationships already codified into state law. 

“But “designated person” and “family-like relationship” — those are very broad and ambiguous, and that’s where the crux of our opposition lies,” Giarde said.

Supporters say that the terminology used in the bill was put into law last year, giving employees the right to take leave to care for a “designated person.” The bill currently being considered extends that law by offering paid leave while they care for their chosen family. 

Protecting caregivers from discrimination 

The rights of caregivers continue to be on the minds of legislators as the Senate labor committee is set to hear a bill Wednesday that would prohibit employment discrimination based on family caregiver status. To stay alive this session, the bill needs to get through the committee by Friday. 

AB 524, also proposed by Wicks, would add “family caregiver status” to the list of protected characteristics such as race, sexual orientation and religion, meaning that caregivers could not be discriminated against when applying for or holding a job. 

“On top of the emotional and physical toll that can be associated with caregiving, caregivers also face discrimination in the workplace,” Wicks said in a statement in the bill analysis, pointing out that demand for caregivers will increase as the population ages.

Discrimination against caregivers disproportionately impacts women, people of color, and low-wage workers.

More than 63 million Americans care for at least one child under 18, and 40.4 million Americans provide unpaid care to someone aged 65 years or older, according to federal data. The term “sandwich generation” has been coined for caretakers — the vast majority of whom are women — who care for their aging parents and minor children at the same time. 

Though the bill was amended to clarify that employers are not expected to provide special accommodations for caregivers, more than 110 organizations are opposed, including the California Chamber, which calls it a “job killer” and warns it could lead to more lawsuits. 

Opponents argue that “family caregiver status” is very broad and “family member” is not limited to an actual relative in the bill. 

“The employer has no ability to dispute an employee designating themselves as having family caregiver status,” said a coalition of the bill’s opponents, including over 60 chambers of commerce, in a statement in the bill analysis. “Any dispute would open the employer up to costly litigation.”

However, research from the Center for WorkLife Law found that the four states with similar laws — Alaska, Delaware, Minnesota, and New York — averaged one lawsuit per state per year. 

Golombek of the Chamber said that New York’s law includes clearer language, defining caregiver status as providing “direct and ongoing care” instead of California’s language of “contributing to the care of.”

More than 50 organizations support the bill, including the California School Employees Association which represents 250,000 school staff across the state.

“Most of our members are women of color, and women are often tasked with the role of caregiver in their family,” the association said in a statement in the bill analysis. “We strongly believe no one should be denied job opportunities based on their status as a family caregiver.” 

CalMatters politics reporter Alexei Koseff contributed to this story.

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