Capitol Alert

California Legislature passes paid sick leave bill

In the waning hours of their session, California lawmakers passed a measure to provide workers with three paid sick days a year, capping tense negotiations that splintered supporters.

The top Democratic priority squeaked through both houses of the Legislature despite losing backing from major labor unions following amendments. The Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees abandoned the bill after it was rewritten to exempt home healthcare workers.

But it benefited from a late-session push by Gov. Jerry Brown and author Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat and former labor leader who corralled enough votes to keep it moving. Brown’s office rarely weighs in publicly on pending legislation, typically doing so to help push prominent measures – like a recent water bond – across the finish line.

“Tonight, the Legislature took historic action to help hardworking Californians,” Brown said in a statement. “This bill guarantees that millions of workers – from Eureka to San Diego – won’t lose their jobs or pay just because they get sick.”

Several Democrats voiced frustration over the amendments to the bill, saying that removing the in-home caregivers from the sick leave benefit put them in a bind between supporting a policy they favored, and supporting a union with whom they are aligned. Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, described it as a “Sophie’s choice.”

Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, had harsher words: “This is B.S.,” she said.

“I resent the fact that we are picking between two sets of workers,” Mitchell said, adding that she saw the amendment as an attack on a mostly female segment of the workforce.

“This is yet another example where a female-dominated industry, that has taken disproportionate hits during the state’s fiscal crisis is once again being, quite frankly, disrespected.”

Sick leave has been a critical goal of Democrats and their liberal allies across the country since San Francisco voters in 2006 passed a first-in-the-nation initiative allowing all workers in the city to accrue and use time off. Past efforts at the California Capitol to expand the paid time were sidetracked by the recession and fierce lobbying by business groups.

Employers currently are not required to give time off to sick employees. Supporters of Assembly Bill 1522 pointed to the roughly 40 percent of the state’s workforce, totaling about 7 million people, who do not earn leave benefits for when they fall ill. Given the rising cost of living, they contended workers cannot afford to forfeit a day’s pay for being sick or caring for a loved one.

They also cited studies showing that supplying sick days saves businesses money by reducing turnover, stops the spread of maladies and boosts workplace morale and productivity. Home healthcare workers could still bargain for the benefit.

Business groups and their allies contended the measure would harm their ability to operate and ultimately drag down their bottom line. They noted that many employers large and small already provide compensated sick days and said the state shouldn’t create another mandate.

Former Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, introduced at least two similar measures, the latest of which sought to allow workers to use paid sick time for up five days a year for small businesses and nine days a year for all other workers. Though patterned after the San Francisco ordinance, it stalled in committee after the sponsoring Labor Federation asked lawmakers to hold the bill.

The last-minute exodus of SEIU reprised a clash from earlier this year between Brown and the union over home healthcare aides. Brown’s budget this year sought to cap overtime hours for participants in the state’s In-Home Supportive Services program, prompting concerted labor pushback.

That time, SEIU’s position prevailed. But AB 1522 succeeded on Brown’s terms. The amendments cutting IHSS workers out of the bill emerged after negotiations between Brown and Gonzalez, and lawmakers advanced the measure despite the union’s protestations.

“I would like to say this bill was as pristine as when I first brought it but we had to make compromises in order to ensure that we have a bill that this governor would sign,” Gonzalez conceded, but she argued that “we have been able to maintain the integrity of the bill that, if passed tonight, would expand workers rights in a way that is unprecedented in this state or in this nation.”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago. Staff writers Jeremy B. White and Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this report.

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