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California legislators cap off session with several COVID-19 protection bills

Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, right, R-Granite Bay
Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, right, R-Granite Bay, attends a hearing of the Assembly Transportation Committee in Sacramento, Calif.
(Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

California lawmakers on Monday wrapped up a legislative session largely defined by the pandemic as they approved new COVID-19 sick leave for food workers, added sweeping labor protections for laid-off hotel staff and made it easier for essential employees to file for workers’ compensation.

With approval in the Senate and Assembly ahead of Monday’s deadline, the bills will next head to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will have until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the measures.

The bills made their way through the Capitol after the building itself had to be shuttered twice this year due to the coronavirus, shortening the time lawmakers had to craft and debate proposals. At least three lawmakers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since July, and in the final days of session, 10 Republicans were forced to quarantine and vote remotely.

“We had to pivot quickly despite those disruptions to deal with the crisis this year,” said Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician who chairs the Senate’s Health Committee. “It was a very challenging and unusual session, but I think we did what was needed.”

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Among those already en route is Assembly Bill 3216 by Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), a proposal pushed by unions that would create significant labor protections for hotel, janitorial, airport, event center and building maintenance workers.

The bill requires employers in those industries to first rehire workers they laid off during a state of emergency, including in cases in which a new owner takes over a business.

“This bill is and has always been about protecting workers, especially those who have been among the hardest-hit communities during this crisis: Latino workers, low-wage workers and immigrant workers,” Kalra said. “These workers did not create this crisis, and they should be able to go back to their jobs and be part of our state’s economic recovery.”

Opponents included Republicans and business groups, who argued that the “right of recall” provisions — which would require employers to extend offers of employment to laid-off workers — were unworkable and would slow industries trying to reopen.

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The Legislature also passed a budget trailer bill, first made public Friday, that would require food-sector companies, healthcare providers and emergency responders with more than 500 employees to provide two weeks of supplemental paid sick leave for full-time workers who are unable to work after being exposed to the coronavirus or contracting COVID-19. AB 1867, which expires Dec. 31, is similar to an executive order Newsom signed earlier this year.

Federal law passed this year provides the same benefit to employees at smaller businesses. Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) said AB 1867 would ensure that workers at larger companies “aren’t left out in the cold.”

“We want to make sure we are protecting those workers, especially those workers who are going to work every single day to feed us,” Ting said.

Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake) said restaurants in the state are struggling to remain afloat amid the ban on indoor dining, and adding new regulations will hurt those businesses further.

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“Although I think we all share the desire to make it easier for the workers of California, it is wrong to put this burden on the shoulder of an industry already reeling,” Obernolte said.

Late Monday night, the Legislature passed SB 1159 by Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), which would make it easier for police, firefighters and other essential employees who contract COVID-19 on the job to be covered under the state’s workers’ compensation program. The bill also eases a requirement that workers with COVID-19 prove they contracted the illness while on the job in cases in which there is an outbreak at the employee’s worksite.

Newsom has previously said he plans to work “hand in glove” with the Legislature to expand COVID-19 workplace protections, including loosening workers’ compensation claim requirements. In May, Newsom signed an executive order easing workers’ compensation restrictions for essential workers, but those changes relaxed the burden of proof only for workers with COVID-19 before July 5. SB 1159 codifies the executive order and extends the time frame for the changes until 2023.

The Legislature also approved AB 276 by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), which would raise the amount Californians can borrow penalty-free from their employer-sponsored retirement accounts to $100,000 from $50,000 if they have been financially impacted by the pandemic.

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Another proposal approved by the Legislature, AB 2537 by Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez (D-Pomona), would require general acute care hospitals to stockpile three months of protective equipment supplies by April 1 or face a fine of up to $25,000. AB 2043 by Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) is also headed to Newsom and would require the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health to compile and publicly report investigations into agricultural workplace conditions related to COVID-19, as well as illnesses from the virus.

While lawmakers worked to clear bills before Monday’s deadline, the state Senate was largely slowed by an unprecedented challenge — remote voting by 10 Republicans forced to quarantine after being exposed to Sen. Brian Jones (R-Santee), who tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

Action on COVID-19 bills and all other pending legislation came to a grinding halt early Monday evening for almost two hours when a bitter partisan feud erupted in the state Senate. Majority Democrats, concerned about the number of bills to be considered before the constitutional deadline at midnight, sought to impose time limits on debate — a change in normal Senate rules that infuriated Republicans.

Senators quarreled over the rule change, with at least one expletive caught on a microphone that wasn’t muted. The effect of the disagreement left the fate of several closely watched bills in doubt as the night wore on.

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Lawmakers approved SB 275 by Pan and Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), which calls for the state to build a supply of medical equipment. Hospitals and other healthcare employers would be required to assemble a 45-day supply by June 1, 2023.

SB275 was watered down in recent days, reducing the stockpile from a 90-day supply to half that amount for healthcare employers, while leaving the state’s own threshold undefined. Recent amendments require the state to begin building its stockpile only after money is set aside to do so.

Opponents of the bill argued that it requires healthcare employers to begin building a supply too soon, potentially taking away equipment needed now by frontline workers. Others have said it’s the responsibility of the state, not healthcare employers, to create a stockpile for emergencies.

Pan said the need for the state to warehouse medical supplies was evident during the current pandemic, in which mask shortages drove up prices and increased the spread of the virus.

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A UC Berkeley Labor Center study found that if the state had had a stockpile prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of workers would not have contracted the virus, and California would have saved $93 million each week on unemployment claims from out-of-work healthcare workers.

The study’s co-author, William Dow, a professor of health policy and management in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, said California can save money and lives if it plans ahead. Dow said any stockpile is an improvement over what California had prior to the pandemic, but he raised concerns that a 45-day supply would not be sufficient.

“I find that incredibly myopic,” Dow said. “I hope this is looked at again when people have clearer eyes after we get through the current uncertainty surrounding our budget.”

Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.


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