As COVID-19 cases surge, San Jose extends paid sick leave protections
Green Lotus restaurant's staff is pictured in this file photo.

As COVID-19 cases shatter records in Silicon Valley and hospital capacity dwindles, San Jose lawmakers took steps to ensure essential workers receive paid sick leave until June.

In the absence of federal COVID-19 paid sick leave protections, the San Jose City Council unanimously voted Jan. 5 to is extend local sick leave benefits until mid 2021.

Under the new emergency ordinance, employees will receive 80 hours of paid sick leave per year and part-time employees can receive leave two-weeks worth of leave. The leave can be used regardless of how long a local employee has worked for a company.

These protections were once provided to employees through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), but the act expired on Dec. 31, 2020 — and thus far, federal officials have no plans to extend it.

“This is another example of a city being the last line of defense for our community when our federal government is essentially failing us,” Councilmember Maya Esparza said.

In anticipation of the lack of federal support, the San Jose City Council last month approved extending the city’s protection, but local lawmakers were waiting to see if FFCRA would be extended first.

San Jose’s ordinance  takes effect immediately and expires on June 30. It also establishes a private right of action for employees to enforce paid sick leave benefits.

The local COVID-19 Paid Sick Leave ordinance, enacted April 7, 2020, was initially meant to serve only as a supplement to federal protections — which city leaders and workers insisted were not enough. It also covers workers left out of the federal policies.

Rosa Espinoza, who has worked for McDonald’s in San Jose for 20 years, COVID-19 has increased the need for greater paid sick leave.

“We get about three days a year and right now with the pandemic, workers are being told to go home even, if they have a little cough and sometimes are not allowed to use the paid sick leave because the managers say they have to call ahead of time,” Espinoza said through a translator. “I really urge all of you to consider extending these protections through the summer because folks need time to get the vaccine and stop the spread.”

California law states full-time employees can earn a minimum of 24 hours of paid sick leave per year or they can earn a minimum of one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked. Employees can use this paid sick leave after 90 days.

FFCRA exempted businesses with more than 500 employees or those with fewer than 50 employees from additional paid time off. San Jose’s ordinance covered those essential employees with no exemptions. Employees can also use sick time to care for another person — but they will be paid two-thirds of their regular pay rate up to $2,000.

According to the policy, employers must give an employee paid sick leave if the employee must quarantine due to COVID-19, if the employee is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and is seeking a diagnosis, if the employee is caring for another individual in COVID-19 isolation or if the employee is caring for a child whose school has been closed due to COVID-19 — where no other childcare option is available.

The vote was particularly emotional for Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19. Arenas acknowledged her own privilege and commended her colleagues for taking action.

“It was just a huge relief not to have to think about a paycheck and certainly when I think about some of the folks who are out there every single day interacting with people like Rosa … she’s risking her life — she’s risking her health and the well-being of those people within her own household,” Arenas said. “I’m really proud of the work we’re doing here.”

As COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Santa Clara County, Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco said the city needs to be sure people aren’t packing groceries, delivering food or cooking for others while sick.

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Carrasco said. “San Jose has to lead the way.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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