L.A. expands sick leave amid coronavirus — but only for employees at big companies

Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez
Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez led Friday’s meeting from the chamber as other members including Joe Buscaino dialed in. The council’s tougher paid leave plan carved out smaller businesses with fewer than 500 workers.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles City Council voted Friday to increase paid leave for workers who have fallen ill or need to care for family — but only for workers at businesses with 500 or more employees nationwide.

Council members scaled back a proposal that would have required most employers to provide 10 additional days of paid leave amid the coronavirus crisis, on top of the six currently required under city law. The decision followed protests from business owners who said they couldn’t afford the measure and are already struggling with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m reminded of the first line of the Hippocratic oath — ‘First do no harm,’” said Councilman Joe Buscaino, who argued that the original proposal would have decimated small businesses.

One L.A. resident who phoned in to the meeting angrily told council members that she had been laid off from a company whose office closed because someone had symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Before it shut down, she said, a co-worker begged others to wash their hands properly to help protect his husband battling cancer.


“People are dying. They died yesterday. They will die tomorrow. And you have the power now to save so many,” the woman said, adding pointedly: “The Hippocratic oath was written about human lives and not businesses and profit margins.”

The measure was taken up during a historic dial-in meeting, with every council member except Council President Nury Martinez attending remotely in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Martinez led the meeting, which lasted from late morning beyond sundown, from a nearly empty council chamber.

The council voted 14 to 1, with Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson opposed, to amend the measure to reduce the number of businesses that would be covered by the new requirements for paid leave.

City officials had been looking to protect workers who will not be covered by a federal law that will soon mandate 10 days of leave for workers who are under quarantine, have symptoms of COVID-19, or are caring for others because of the pandemic.

In a report released Wednesday, city analysts said the federal law does not cover companies with 500 or more employees. Small businesses — those with fewer than 50 workers — can seek an exemption from the federal rules, the report said.

City law already requires sick leave for employees working in Los Angeles, ensuring they can accrue and use up to six days of paid leave annually. Under the measure approved Friday, large employers would have to give an additional 10 days to those who work at least 40 hours a week.

Employees would receive the paid leave if public health officials have recommended that they self-quarantine, if they are 65 or older, or if they have certain medical conditions such as asthma or diabetes. They also would receive the sick leave if they need to take care of a family member.

After the vote, business owners and their representatives expressed relief about the decision to carve smaller businesses out of the new ordinance, saying the original proposal would have proven so costly that many businesses would have simply shut down.


“I feel like every single one of my 250 employees dodged a bullet,” Genevieve Gergis, co-owner of the Italian restaurant Bestia and the Middle Eastern restaurant Bavel said after Friday’s vote.

Gergis said her two businesses have 250 employees — all but 16 of them furloughed. The restaurants provide healthcare to their employees, including those who are off work, she said. “If that proposal had gone through, we would have had to immediately stop payment on healthcare and the future of the restaurant would have been uncertain,” she said.

Labor and community groups that had been pushing for more sick leave were disappointed by the decision to carve out smaller businesses. Manuel Villanueva, lead organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Los Angeles, called it “a slap in the face to those immigrant workers who are putting their life at risk right now to feed us.”

Cayetano Juarez, a cook living in South Los Angeles, said his hours have been slashed, leaving him stressed about paying rent and bills. He also worries about continuing to go to the cafe where he works, which is still preparing to-go orders.

“We’re taking lots of precautions, but I fear it’s not enough,” Juarez said in Spanish. “It scares me, the idea of taking this virus into my home.”

Under the new law, healthcare providers and first responders will be exempt from the requirement to provide the added leave. The council also decided not to require businesses to provide added leave to employees who are off work because their employer has ceased operations temporarily under government guidelines stemming from the pandemic.

The new law was part of a package of measures aimed at helping L.A. workers cope with the economic effects of the virus.

Business groups had voiced alarm about some of the proposals taken up Friday, saying they could cause businesses to close permanently and make it harder for L.A.’s economy to recover. Companies had little chance to review proposals that had been unveiled over the last two days and could go into effect within days, said Tina Oh, spokeswoman for the Central City Assn., a downtown-based business group.

“Business owners might not even know these ordinances are happening while they’re trying to keep their businesses alive,” she said.

At Friday’s meeting, council members also mandated that workers at grocery stores, drugstores and food delivery platforms such as Grubhub and Postmates be allowed to rearrange their schedules to recover from illness or care for children or close family members who have fallen sick. City officials expected that the new laws would go into effect within days.

The council held off voting on another measure that had drawn criticism from business groups, which would have regulated rehiring at workplaces where employees have been laid off.