While the U.S. aims to “flatten the curve,” low-wage employees without paid time off continue to show up to work — even if they’re feeling sick. But the threat of contagion has San Jose leaders worried these workers will continue to spread the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, a San Jose City Council committee voted 4-1 to move forward with a proposal by Mayor Sam Liccardo to enact a citywide paid sick leave ordinance for essential workers not covered by Congress’ recently passed law, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
Councilmember Johnny Khamis cast the lone dissenting vote.
The mayor’s proposal, which was unveiled Wednesday morning, gives 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.
Last week, Councilmembers Maya Esparza, Sylvia Arenas and Magdalena Carrasco introduced a similar plan to give workers up to 80 hours of paid sick time a year, modeled after similar laws in San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco.
But the committee last week declined to move the proposal forward until they discussed which businesses would be affected and whether or not the proposal would be permanent. They cited worries about the financial burden paid sick time would impose on small businesses already facing economic devastation.
Khamis echoed the same concerns at Wednesday’s meeting, ultimately voting down the proposal because it did not go far enough to protect mom-and-pop businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
“They’re operating on a skeleton crew… they’re not going to be able to afford new mandates,” Khamis said. “My fear is the unintended consequences that these people, rather than comply with our new regulation, will actually just say, ‘I’m just not gonna make food today.’”
But Liccardo said protecting the public’s health was his top concern.
“It’s exactly those places where workers are working in close quarters, in small kitchens with many people close to one another… and that is of course a great concern to all of us as we think about the impact and the spread,” Liccardo said. “That’s why I’m reluctant to create any clear exceptions.”
Unlike the proposal from Carrasco, Arenas and Esparza, the mayor’s plan is temporary — just until the city lift the emergency declarations.
“I think we sometimes have to make compromises,” Arenas said about the mayor’s proposal. “I can certainly understand the difficulty that small businesses would have and I think that there’s some resources that are available — more grants and loans to support those businesses, not only just to make it through the crisis but to stay open.”
Another difference is some employers in the mayor’s proposal will be exempt from the new mandate, which was not mentioned in the previous proposal.
For example, employers that already offer paid time off policies — which includes at least 160 hours a year of vacation, sick time, and part time off — are exempt, as well as nonessential businesses currently shut down.
Arenas said she thinks it’s “unfair” to ask essential service workers to use their personal and vacation time off when they’re sick.
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. But Liccardo’s proposal offers sick leave to workers not covered in the federal bill, while last week’s proposal by Esparza, Arenas and Carrasco offered sick leave to all San Jose employees.
“I’m mindful that this is not easy for small businesses as well,” Liccardo said. “I do want to emphasize my intention to ensure this only applies to those small businesses that actually have workers showing up at a worksite.”
Currently, California law only requires 24 hours — or 3 days — of sick leave a year.
Esparza said it’s important the City Council consider providing workers a full two weeks of time off and giving them additional sick leave during the pandemic if they’ve already used up their time earlier in the year.
“If someone has already used up their sick leave for the year, they need sick leave during the pandemic,” she said.
The city will also work on helping small businesses receive information on eligibility for federal tax credits to help cover the cost of the federal and local mandates and qualify for no-interest loans through Silicon Valley Strong funds and other philanthropic programs.
To help those in need of immediate work, the city will start notifying residents about job openings at essential businesses, such as Costco and Safeway, or residential construction contractors through the Silicon Valley Strong website and Work2Future.
The San Jose City Council will hold a special meeting on April 1 to discuss the mayor’s sick leave proposal before finalizing the approval at its April 7 meeting.