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California workers have new COVID-19 sick pay benefits. Here’s how it works

Fanny Ortiz, a union organizer, at a "drive-through strike line" to demand that management do more to keep workers safe.
Fanny Ortiz, a union organizer, raises her fist in a “drive-thru strike line” at a McDonald’s in Monterey Park on April 9, 2020. Employees were demanding masks, gloves, soap, hazard pay and sick days.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation Wednesday to reinstate supplemental sick leave benefits for most California workers, providing up to two weeks of paid time off for COVID-19 related illnesses and absences.

Standing on the patio of a restaurant in Oakland, Newsom applauded business advocates, labor unions and lawmakers who came together to negotiate the legislation. The new policy includes many provisions of a law that expired in September with some new rules negotiated by the business community.

The policy allows workers at businesses of 26 or more employees to take paid time off to recover from COVID-19, care for a family member, or get a vaccine.

Feb. 7, 2022

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“I’m proud of their hard work,” Newsom said. “We wouldn’t be here without them and I’m honored to be able to sign these pieces of legislation today.”

The sick leave policy allows all workers at businesses of 26 or more employees to take paid time off to recover from COVID-19, care for a sick family member, attend a vaccination appointment, recover from immunization or take care of a child who cannot attend school because of virus-related closures or quarantines.

Here’s everything you need to know about the law.

How many hours will full-time workers receive?

Assembly Bill 84 provides California workers at companies with 26 or more employees with up to 80 hours of COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave. The law breaks up that 80 hours into two banks of 40 hours each.

One bank gives workers up to 40 hours of flexible paid leave to recover from COVID-19, care for a sick family member, attend a vaccination appointment, recover from immunization or take care of a child who cannot attend school because of virus-related closures or quarantines. The bill states that an employer can limit workers to up to 24 hours, or three workdays, to attend each vaccination appointment and to recover or care for someone with vaccine-related symptoms, unless the employee provides verification from a healthcare provider that more time is necessary.

The other bank of 40 hours is more restrictive and can only be used to recover from COVID-19 or to care for a sick family member. Under this bank, employers are allowed to require workers to submit proof of their own positive COVID-19 test or one from the family member in order to qualify.

Katherine Wutchiett, a staff attorney for the San Francisco nonprofit Legal Aid at Work, said it’s important for workers to know that they can use the two banks of 40 hours in whatever order they choose and do not need to exhaust one bank before switching to the other.

The two separate banks of time make the new program appear more complicated than the law from 2021, she said.

“So it’s going to be incredibly important that the state and public health and those who care about public health really invest in communicating that information about how folks can access both of those periods of leaves to get 80 hours,” Wutchiett said.

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That seems confusing. How might a worker exhaust all 80 hours?

Here’s an example. Let’s call the 40 hours of flexible time off “Bank A” and the other 40 hours for which an employer could require a proof of a positive test “Bank B.”

A full-time worker tests positive for COVID-19 in March. The worker takes three days, or 24 hours, of time off to recover and submits a positive test to their employer, which allows the employee to take this sick leave from Bank B.

A few weeks later, the worker’s daughter needs to go to a vaccine appointment. The worker uses one day, or eight hours, from Bank A to take the child to the appointment and another eight hours the next day, also from Bank A, to care for the child, who wakes up with flu-like symptoms.

In June, the worker’s father catches COVID-19. Now the worker uses their last two days from Bank B to care for their parent. The employer may require the worker to provide a positive test from the father.

After two days, the worker’s father is still really sick. The worker has three days, or 24 hours, of Bank A left to care for their parent.

How does an employee who works less than 40 hours per week calculate weekly sick leave?

Workers who have a normal weekly schedule of less than than 40 hours qualify for the total number of hours they are usually scheduled to work in a week for each of the two banks of COVID-19 leave.

The legislation says an employee whose weekly hours vary would receive “seven times the average number of hours the covered employee worked each day for the employer in the six months preceding the date the covered employee took COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave” for each of the two banks. If the employee has worked for the company for more than seven days but less than six months, that calculation for flexible leave would be based on their entire period of employment.

If the employee has only worked for the company for a week or less, they would be entitled to the total number of hours they have worked for each bank of leave.

Are there limits to the amount of sick leave compensation a worker can receive?

The law states that employees will be compensated based on a regular rate of pay not to exceed $511 per day or $5,110 total.

When does the COVID-19 sick leave become available to workers?

The law goes into effect 10 days after Newsom signed the legislation on Wednesday. It will apply retroactively to Jan. 1 and expire on Sept. 30.

If a worker already caught COVID-19 this year and took time off, how does the leave apply retroactively?

Workers who took time off related to COVID-19 this year before the law was signed should discuss with their employer how they would like to classify that leave.

If employees did not receive any compensation for COVID-related time off, they would have to provide a written or oral request to receive retroactive payment.

If the worker was compensated for the earlier time off, they would similarly need to request to be credited for any leave hours used for COVID-specific purposes.

Under the law, an employer is allowed to require an employee to provide proof of a positive test if they would like to retroactively qualify COVID-19 time off under the less-flexible 40-hour bank that can only be used to recover or care for a family member recovering from the virus.

How do workers keep track of the leave they’ve taken?

The law requires employers to include the amount of COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave used on the employee’s itemized wage statement or in a separate writing on pay day. Workers should expect that total to appear on their wage statements separate from standard paid sick days beginning with the next full pay period after the law goes into effect.

What about employees at businesses with fewer than 26 workers?

Under the new law, those workers do not qualify for the COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave. Employees of those businesses would continue to qualify for three days of paid sick leave to recover from any illness under existing law.

Staff writer Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.

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