Mara, What is paid sick leave?
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.
And why are these laws so important?
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.
Then this is especially important for essential workers, right?
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.
What are the current laws?
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.
Who has the right to these benefits?
Everyone has the right to paid sick leave in the State of California but the amount of days depends upon where you work.
And what about undocumented workers?
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.
And if you submit a complaint, they won’t ask about your immigration status?
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.
Is it complicated to get your benefits?
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.
So how does one apply for these benefits?
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.
Are these notes obligatory?
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.
And what happens if your boss says no?
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.
And what happens when the health orders and the quarantine are over?
And if I have a business, can I get help to pay my workers who are home sick?
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.
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.
California Rural Legal Assistance: 707 528 9941
Legal Aid of Sonoma County: 707 542 1290