Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation Wednesday entitling most California workers to three paid sick days a year, a sweeping measure that Democrats and labor advocates have been seeking for years.
The legislation affects about 40 percent of California’s workforce, about 6.5 million people who currently are not paid if they stay home when sick.
Brown said at a signing ceremony that the bill is “modest.” For millions of low-wage workers, he said, “This is the least we can do, and there’s more in the coming years.”
“This is a real step forward,” the governor said. “It helps people, whether it’s a person working at a car wash or McDonald’s or 7-Eleven. These are real people. We all take advantage of their labor, and they ought to have basic decency, basic wages, basic benefits.”
California is the second state in the nation, after Connecticut, to enact a statewide sick leave guarantee – long a source of controversy in statehouses across the country.
In Sacramento, lawmakers had been trying for nearly a decade to pass a paid sick leave bill, after San Francisco voters passed a sick leave guarantee in 2006. Previous bills stalled in the midst of a recession.
California’s economic condition has improved in recent years, however, and Democrats made the issue a priority of the legislative session. The bill Brown signed Wednesday is the latest of several labor-related measures he and the Democratic-controlled Legislature have enacted. Last year, Brown signed legislation raising California’s minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016.
“Today, California made history,” Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, said in a prepared statement.
He said that Brown, by signing the bill, “reaffirmed our state’s role as a national leader in advancing the fundamental rights of working people.”
Brown’s signature was never in doubt.
The administration estimated in June that the cost to the general fund of providing paid sick leave to about 365,000 In-Home Supportive Service providers would exceed $80 million annually.
Two major unions, the Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, withdrew their support for the bill after it was amended, and many Democratic lawmakers were torn.
Doug Moore, executive director of the United Domestic Workers of America, which represents thousands of in-home care givers in California, said in a prepared statement the legislation “has effectively created a second class of workers in our state.”
“Rather than show courage,” he said, “lawmakers have denied dignity to caregivers and the seniors and people with disabilities they serve.”
Proponents of Assembly Bill 1522, by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said providing employees paid sick days reduces employee turnover and the spread of illness in the workplace, a benefit to business.
Business groups said small businesses may not have enough employees to fill in for sick workers, and they objected to other requirements in the law. The California Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, as did the California State Council of the Society of Human Resources Management.
Michael Kalt, an attorney for the human resources management group, said the bill will eliminate flexibility for companies that compensate employees in different ways.
“It’s a bill that has ramifications for a large number of employers,” he said, adding that it is likely to reverberate in other states.
“Things that start in California often don’t stop in California,” he said. “There are so many other states that look to what California is doing.”
Daniel Mitchell, a retired professor of management and public policy at UCLA, said in an email that businesses not now offering employees paid sick leave may factor the new requirement into future pay decisions, likely shifting the cost into slightly lower pay increases in the future.
Former Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, who introduced unsuccessful paid sick leave bills while in the Legislature, said, “Back in 2008, obviously, we were in the worst recession, and we couldn’t pass any bill that cost one dollar.”
Now, Ma said, “the situation is changing,” and she called the bill Brown signed “one step forward” for the state’s labor force.
The legislation’s passage comes as a growing number of local governments around the country, including New York City, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, pass paid sick-leave requirements. President Barack Obama has pushed for a federal mandate, and lawmakers in New Jersey, Vermont and Minnesota, among other states, have advocated similar, state-level laws.
In more conservative governments, including Wisconsin, lawmakers have responded by enacting legislation prohibiting local agencies from requiring paid sick leave.
Ruben Garcia, a law professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies labor law, said the law Brown signed Wednesday could be significant in states “where there’s already been a big push for greater workplace protections,” but less so in conservative states, or in Washington, D.C., with the Republican-controlled House.
“It’s very unlikely to get any federal legislation in the workplace area – particularly something as controversial as this – through the Congress in the next two years,” he said.
According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report last year, about 61 percent of the nation’s workforce had access to paid sick leave in 2012. About three-quarters of full-time workers had the benefit, while only about 23 percent of part-time workers did.
The percentage of all workers receiving paid sick leave is up more than 10 percent since the early 1990s. The Bureau of Labor Statistics attributed the increase in part to the growth of white-collar jobs, where sick leave is more prevalent.
Brown, who is running for re-election, traveled to Los Angeles, the state’s largest media market, to sign the bill.
“We have to fight against the growing inequality, the immiseration of millions of families in our country and certainly in our state,” he said.
Brown’s Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, said the bill would benefit current employees but hurt people who are out of work.
“It actually makes the cost of labor higher,” he told reporters at the Capitol, “and that’s the exact opposite direction that we need to move in.”