Por Edgar Avila, KBBF Radio
This episode was produced by Edgar Avila, KBBF Radio
 
flu 5367898 1280This article is a summary of a KBBF informe special loosely translated by NorCal Public Media. Listen to the original version in Spanish below. 
 
Puedes escuchar este episodio en español abajo:
 
  
 
 
 
Welcome to this episode of KBBF Informe. Today we talk about emergency sick leave. How can we encourage people to stay in their homes if they have COVID-19? While the economy opens quickly and more people are returning to work, COVID-19 infections continue to rise. It is more important than ever that workers can protect themselves and for employers to protect their employees. One way of protecting workers is for them to have the ability to stay at home if they have symptoms of COVID-19, if they know they might be affected, or if they are at high risk.
This is especially important for Latinos in Sonoma County because they are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Latinos represent 75 percent of all of the COVID-10 infections and many are front-line workers. One analysis shows that Latinos represent 76 percent of essential employees in industries like foodservice, healthcare, construction, and agriculture. Because of this reason having sick leave is critical. All workers can take three days off from work in the case of any illness, not just COVID-19.
 
In terms of the pandemic, the federal government passed a law called the ‘Families First Law’ that says that employees who work at companies that have fewer than 500 employees have the right to ten sick days of paid leave in situations that are related to COVID-19. This law is to last through the end of 2020. A supplemental order from Governor Gavin Newsom means that people who work in the food sector including food service, restaurants, supermarkets, and agriculture, have the right to two weeks of paid sick leave independent from the size of their company.
 
We spoke with Mara Ventura, Executive Director of North Bay Jobs With Justice, about this topic.
 
Avila
Mara, What is paid sick leave?
 
Ventura
Paid sick leave means that the employer has to continue to pay the employee’s salary if an employee is sick or is caring for or living with someone who is sick, or can’t find childcare due to COVID. A sick worker receives their full salary while they stay at home taking care of their health. If someone is caring for someone else in their family who may be sick or is caring for a child so that they cannot go to work, they have to pay them at least 75 percent of their salary. We call for employers to pay 100 percent, nevertheless, it means that the worker could stay in their house taking care of their health or their family member’s health and still be getting paid.
 
Avila
And why are these laws so important?
 
Ventura
Part of our ability to flatter the curve of COVID is to ensure that people are sheltered in place. Particularly people who have symptoms or are caring for someone with symptoms and this is a luxury that very few can afford.

If people are working and depend on their salary to pay the rent, the bills, and groceries we have to find a way to replace this salary while they stay home sick. So that they don’t leave for work and possibly expose other people.
 
Avila
Then this is especially important for essential workers, right?
 
Ventura
Yes, absolutely, our essential workers sometimes don’t have the luxury of stable housing, like many of us, and so they have a greater risk. We need to make sure the employers respect these laws and offer better pay through workplace policies. As we reopen, it’s really important that all employees understand that they have sick leave. Every employer that is trying to bring their employees back to a worksite should assure that everyone understands not just workplace safety protocols but also what to do should they or someone they live with show symptoms.

Avila
What are the current laws?
 
Ventura
O.K., so there are three measures of paid sick leave in effect. I want to be really clear that in the State of California, everyone has the right to paid sick leave. Before the pandemic, anyone had the right to three days of paid sick leave under state law. This has been the law since 2015 and it also says that one has the right to one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.
 
So people who had been working since January 1st had sick leave before shelter in place in March. Because of this, everyone who was working had at least three days of sick leave and possibly more if their employer did not place limits on how much they could accumulate. What congress did at the end of March was say that if you work for an employer that has under 500 employees, you qualify for seven additional days. In other words, you have ten days of paid sick leave. These days can be used by the hour for up to 80 hours and distributed as one needs them. But there is a limit of two weeks for people that work less than forty hours per week.
What Newsom said is that he doesn’t think these laws sufficiently support workers in the food sector. Because of this, he decided to give them 80 complete hours without it mattering if their employer had over 500 employees. Agricultural workers in the field, restaurant workers, and grocery store workers have the right to 80 hours regardless of the size of the business they work for. This is very important. Imagine, for example, in a supermarket there might be more than 500 employees. The owner of the business, let’s say Safeway, employs more than 500 people throughout the country. These workers would have been excluded from paid sick leave under congress's act, but not under California’s. 
 
This is also very important for agricultural workers in the field, who for the most part, do not know that they are entitled to a full ten days or 80 hours of paid sick leave.
 
Avila
Who has the right to these benefits?
 
Ventura
Everyone has the right to paid sick leave in the State of California but the amount of days depends upon where you work.
 
Avila
And what about undocumented workers?
 
Ventura
It’s really important for folks to know that your immigration status does not change the majority of your rights as a worker. Everyone has the right to their pay, everyone has the right to paid time off, everyone has the right to overtime pay, and everyone, without regard to their immigration status, has the right to present a claim for wage theft. If you aren’t being paid appropriately or if you are not given paid sick leave, you have the right to file a claim with the California Labor Commissioner's Office. One of their offices is here in Santa Rosa. North Bay Jobs for Justice or the Graton Day Labor Center can help people present these claims.
 
Avila
And if you submit a complaint, they won’t ask about your immigration status?
 
Ventura
No, not at all. They support a lot of migrant and undocumented workers. They work really hard to make sure that every worker who files a claim receives their money. This includes anyone who took sick days and wasn’t paid. It also includes anyone who was denied using their sick leave.
 
Avila
Is it complicated to get your benefits?
 
Ventura
There is no paperwork. There are two other important things that I’ll say. One is that your only responsibility as an employee is to notify your boss. This doesn’t have to be in writing, but we encourage people to do it in writing so that you have proof if it is necessary later. The second important thing to know is that legally your boss cannot deny you sick leave in any circumstance, including if they cannot find a worker to replace you. Your boss cannot deny you even if they do not have sufficient funds. They have to allow you to take your sick leave. They have to allow you to stay home and not work and they have to pay you for it.
 
Avila
So how does one apply for these benefits?
 
Ventura
Because it is a right you already have, you don’t have to apply, you only have to notify your boss as soon as possible, when you or a member of your family has symptoms and you should be staying home. Also when you take a COVID test, they will give you a paper with instructions that say you should quarantine. You should show this paper to your employer if it’s useful or if they ask for it. If your employer asks you for a note when you come back they will also provide that.
 
Avila
Are these notes obligatory?
 
Ventura
That’s a good question, most likely they are because they fall under the health ordinances of Sonoma County. I’m not sure, but I imagine that there is a lot of concern at this moment because people do not want to take this test as they are going to tell you that you can’t go to work.
We want to let you know that they do this test so that we can understand where the virus is and if the people that you are around are at risk. If you are working and you are worried about missing work without pay, you can let your boss know that you have the right to paid sick leave and that they should pay you while you stay home. You can call a community organization, like Jobs With Justice if you need help. In whatever case, you should absolutely get tested.
 
Avila
And what happens if your boss says no?
 
Ventura
If your boss says no, they are violating federal laws and regulations. Please call one of the organizations as soon as possible. We will mention a few numbers at the end of this interview that you can call. If you need help in other languages, we can also help with that.
 
Avila
And what happens when the health orders and the quarantine are over?
 
Ventura
The California State law is permanent. We will always have that, but the Governor’s order that provides leave for food service workers and the Federal law will end at the end of the year. It will probably be renewed in 2021, but for now, we are covered until January first.
 
Avila
And if I have a business, can I get help to pay my workers who are home sick?
 
Ventura
If you own a business with less than 500 employees and you pay a worker for sick leave it is 100% deductible from your taxes. The federal government will return this money. I also want to add that I believe that Sonoma County and the larger cities like Santa Rosa and Petaluma should consider financial assistance for small businesses so that some of this money can be recuperated immediately. Jobs With Justice is supporting this initiative. We have spoken with some of our elected officials. We have spoken specifically with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to support this idea. We want to encourage business owners to speak with their elected officials to talk about why paid sick leave may be financially difficult and ask what they can do to cover a portion of that cost.
 
Avila
Many thanks to Mara Ventura. If you have problems with wage theft or not being about to take sick leave, you can contact these organizations.
 
North Bay Jobs With Justice: 707 293 2863
California Rural Legal Assistance: 707 528 9941
Legal Aid of Sonoma County: 707 542 1290
 
This KBBF Informe program was produced with Support from John S. Knight Fellowship of Stanford University.
 
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