San Jose lawmakers unanimously approve paid sick leave policy
San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco is seen at a March 13 news conference advocating for a paid sick leave policy amid COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Working Partnerships, USA.

Low-wage workers in San Jose employed during the coronavirus pandemic will soon receive paid sick leave if they start to feel ill on the job.

Following a unanimous vote Wednesday, the San Jose City Council decided to move forward with the emergency ordinance, one week after Mayor Sam Liccardo introduced policy.

“We believe that compliance is the most important thing,” said Kim Walesh, the city’s economic development director. “Workers at essential businesses — if they are sick — should stay home to protect those essential business operations and the broader public health.”

The city’s new paid sick leave ordinance will give all essential workers impacted by COVID-19 an immediate 40 hours of paid sick leave with an additional hour of sick leave for every two hours worked, up to a cap of 80 hours for the duration of the public health emergency.

“The more compliance we have, the more quickly we will be in a place where we can get the economy started up again,” added Walesh.

California law only requires 24 hours — or 3 days — of sick leave a year. The new ordinance will cover an employee for the duration of two weeks, equivalent to the incubation period of the virus.

“This is very real, especially for low-income families,” said East Side Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco. “Individuals are showing up sick, I can tell you first hand. This gives people an opportunity to stay home, stay healthy and keep us healthy.”

Councilmember Sylvia Arenas said the ordinance will prevent people like custodial workers, childcare providers and grocery store clerks from getting others sick and avoid overwhelming the region’s health care system with new coronavirus cases.

“Now more than ever, our working families living paycheck to paycheck need access to paid sick leave to be able to stay home when necessary without having to further strain their limited resources,” she said.

Councilmember Johnny Khamis voted for the ordinance Wednesday, but didn’t support it at a committee meeting last week because it doesn’t exempt small businesses with 35 employees or less. He said small businesses don’t like “government handouts.”

Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmember Pam Foley agreed, adding that many businesses will start laying off employees or be forced to permanently shut their doors.

“Some of the businesses that take on that additional cost are going to go under, the employees are going to be out of a job and they’re going to be looking for other jobs in a very tight employment market,” Jones said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, the lawmakers voted against exempting those small businesses. Liccardo said federal mandates already set strict restrictions that prevent the city from creating exemptions.

The federal bill exempts all businesses with 500 or more employees and allows small businesses and health care providers that have 50 employees or less to seek an exemption. The city’s proposal offers sick leave to all essential workers not covered in the federal bill.

“Even those who apply for an exemption to that federal mandate, if they have fewer than 50 employees, even if they are successful and get an exemption, all that exemption appears to do is to narrow the scope of the mandate,” Liccardo said. “But they would still have the mandate for an employee who is sick.”

The federal rules allow employees who are sick with the coronavirus, who have a family member who is sick, is in quarantine or has been advised by a doctor to self-quarantine, to qualify for sick leave. Businesses that provide sick leave under these conditions would be reimbursed with a federal tax credit.

“The economic necessity of showing up at work if they’re not feeling well might not be ordinarily that consequential an issue — it clearly is now during a pandemic,” Liccardo said, doubling down on his stance from last week to prioritize the public’s health over the economy. “That is the primary reason why I’m not supportive of creating a carve out exemption for small business.”

“Our public health is tied to our economy,” Councilmember Dev Davis added. “It’s better for us to mitigate as much as we can now and to the greatest extent possible.”

The ordinance will be temporary — just until the city lifts its emergency declaration.

The city will prioritize no-interest loans and grants for small businesses that comply with the ordinance through the Silicon Valley Strong Fund, a regional program that provides low-income residents with financial assistance. City officials plan to send out flyers to businesses that will potentially qualify.

The City Council will enact the new ordinance at its next meeting on Tuesday.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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