San Jose: Paid sick leave proposal stalls as lawmakers raise questions
San Jose councilmembers Sylvia Arenas and Magdalena Carrasco are pictured in this file photo.

The fast-moving spread of the novel coronavirus has forced millions of Bay Area residents to stay shuttered in their homes, threatening the local economy and disrupting countless lives.

But the hundreds of thousands of employees in San Jose who don’t have paid sick leave could face a difficult choice of risking their health by working while sick or forgoing a paycheck.

San Jose lawmakers on Wednesday considered a proposal that would give workers up to 80 hours of paid sick time a year, modeled after similar laws in San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco. Currently, California law only requires 24 hours — or 3 days — of sick leave a year.

But a council committee on Wednesday unanimously declined to move the proposal forward, saying that requiring paid sick leave would be a financial burden to small businesses already facing economic devastation. The committee will come back for discussion next week specifying which businesses would be affected and whether or not the proposal would be permanent.

“We made a huge effort to show that we are concerned about the needs of our small businesses,” Councilmember Johnny Khamis said. “In fact, I don’t know how they’re going to survive through this current downturn and I think that this could strain them even further by giving them more regulations and more hoops to jump through.”

Khamis also suggested the city wait for the federal government’s actions to take effect before implementing the policy.

But other lawmakers disagreed, saying San Jose families need immediate relief.

“(People) are coming to work because they need to put food on the table for their family, because they’re in a situation where they’re being forced,” said Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, who disagreed with the move. “They have no other options — this is really what this is about.”

The proposal, which some labor leaders consider among the strongest in the nation, would provide the equivalent of an additional 14 days of paid sick time during a public health emergency.

“The evidence is pretty clear,” said Jeffrey Buchanan, director of public policy for Working Partnerships USA. “It’s gonna be a lot harder to slow the growth curve of the coronavirus if workers don’t know that they can take a sick day and stay at home, instead of putting the public at risk.”

As one of the regions hit hardest by the pandemic, more than 600 residents signed a petition calling on cities in Santa Clara County to enforce stronger paid sick leave ordinances in the wake of the outbreak. The proposal would also prevent employers from retaliating against their workers for using paid sick time.

But Jeff Cristina, who represents Green Waste Recoveries and Zanker Recycling, said he’s concerned the move would cost small business owners too much and drive them out of business.

“Right now, businesses are firing people,” he said. “This is putting a significant hardship on a lot of small businesses, it’s going to particularly sting a lot of mom and pops and it’s going to be disastrous for our community during the disaster. The impacts of this will be horrendous.”

State and federal leaders are directing residents to “shelter in place” and work from home. While many employees in the tech-hub of Silicon Valley can work remotely, others rely on low-wage service jobs to get them by.

A quarter of the country’s workforce has no sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, living paycheck to paycheck working in hospitality, health care and retail.

Councilmember Dev Davis agreed the city should wait to act on the issue since the federal government is working on providing public dollars to help families in need.

“Providing for our people right now is the most important thing that our staff should be doing as opposed to duplicating efforts that are already happening at the federal level,” Councilmember Dev Davis said.

But Councilmember Maya Esparza said the federal bill, which was passed in the Senate in a 90 – 8 vote Wednesday, did not go far enough to protect some workers. The 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.

Esparza criticized the newly-enacted law, signed by President Donald Trump Wednesday, for leaving out millions of families from the promised two weeks of sick leave at 100 percent of an individual’s salary

“(The bill) was essentially gutted… for things like sick leave, leaving many employees throughout the nation without coverage,” Esparza added. “Our focus should be on taking care of our community and then pushing the federal government to backfill.”

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

Editor’s Note: Derecka Mehrens, executive director of Working Partnerships USA, serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.

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