For four of the past seven years, California legislators have considered proposals to require employers to provide paid sick leave for employees. The first three died quietly. The fourth and current proposal is making some noise and may have a better chance of making it to the governor's desk.
AB 1522 by Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) has made it over committee hurdles and now faces a vote on the state Senate floor before the end of the month.
So far, only one state -- Connecticut -- has established a law requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. California has considered the idea three times in the past seven years -- in 2008, 2009 and 2011. Each of those bills died in appropriations committees.
AB 1522 has dialed back the number of paid sick days required and may have a better shot at moving forward. Gonzalez's bill calls for employers to pay for a minimum of three sick days (24 hours) per year for employees who work 30 or more days in a calendar year. Previous proposals called for as many as nine days (72 hours) per year.
"This is a modest proposal in our view, but at the same time it could make a huge difference for people who have no sick leave at all now," said Steve Smith, communications director for the California Labor Federation, sponsor of the bill.
The bill would affect all employers in the state -- public, private, large and small. Two groups would be exempt -- California employers that already have paid sick leave policies in place that meet or exceed the accrual requirements of AB 1522, and employers operating under a collective bargaining agreement that meets or exceeds provisions in AB 1522.
The bill and its proponents have made it clear that the goal is to establish minimum standards, and not to limit employers from offering equivalent or more generous paid sick leave policies.
Lack of Sick Pay Called Public Hazard, Reproductive Issue
Proponents of the bill contend that the roughly six million Californians without paid sick leave (about 40% of the workforce) routinely go to work sick or send their sick children to school because they can't afford to miss a day of work. Those decisions help spread illness and contribute to crowded emergency departments, proponents say.
The American Civil Liberties Union argues that paid sick leave is a reproductive justice issue.
"It really helps with issues like this for people to understand the broader applications," said Phyllida Burlingame, reproductive policy director for ACLU of Northern California.
"We think it's clear that paid sick leave is a reproductive justice issue on several levels. People should be able to parent with dignity and not be penalized at work for being caregivers," Burlingame said.
ACLU officials also point out that a lack of paid sick leave can influence decisions during pregnancy.
"Even though we live in a state where Medi-Cal dollars can be used for pregnancy care, including abortion, many people cannot take time off work to seek abortion care," wrote Ashley Morris, senior organizer for ACLU of Northern California.
"Today, a woman seeking abortion care from a rural area may not be able to afford to take off the two or three days it would take her to travel to a clinic and get the care she needs. That lost pay could mean she is unable to afford her housing or pay for her utilities that month," Morris wrote in a posting on the ACLU website.
Chamber of Commerce Opposes Bill
As it has with each of the previous iterations of the proposal, the California Chamber of Commerce opposes AB 1522, placing it high on its annual "job killer list."
Chamber officials contend a mandate for all employers in the state to provide sick leave would create significant financial and administrative burdens on employers and the state.
In a letter to legislators opposing the bill, Chamber officials wrote:
"In addition to creating costs to private sector employers, AB 1522 will also create significant costs for the state. Specifically, AB 1522 requires the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) to enforce and investigate complaints associated with paid sick leave. It also requires the DLSE to promulgate guidelines and regulations with regard to enforcement of the provisions regarding paid sick leave. AB 1522 further requires the DLSE to develop a notice that sets forth employees’ rights to paid sick leave."
Fear of litigation also appears to be one of the reasons opponents don't like the bill. In its job killer list, the state chamber points out that AB 1522 "threatens employers with statutory penalties and litigation under the Private Attorney General Act for alleged violations."
The chamber urges legislators to "incentivize paid sick leave, not mandate it."
The chamber suggests relaxing rules on overtime and offering more tax breaks may encourage employers to provide paid sick leave. In their letter, chamber officials wrote:
"California should incentivize employers to offer these additional benefits by reducing costs in other areas. One area in which California can reduce costs on employers so that they have the capacity to offer paid sick leave is daily overtime. California is only one of three states that mandates both daily and weekly overtime, creating a huge cost to employers."
"Another option to partially offset the burden on employers to provide paid sick leave is to provide small employers with 50 or fewer employees with a tax credit for the amount expended each year on paid sick leave up to a maximum of 125% of minimum wage."