California’s new sick leave law may fall short of promises

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks last September before signing a sick-leave bill for workers.
Gov. Jerry Brown speaks last September before signing a sick-leave bill for workers. Associated Press file

Starting July 1, millions of California workers will have the right to take a few days of sick leave without shredding their paycheck, thanks to a new law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last September.

California joins Connecticut as the only states to mandate paid sick leave for employees. About 40 percent of the state’s workforce – an estimated 6.5 million people – have no paid sick leave benefits at all, so this law could be a huge help to millions of families.

The law gives employees paid sick leave at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked and lets them begin using the benefit after 90 days of employment. (Home health care workers are the one big group excluded.)

Employees are guaranteed at least three days of paid sick leave a year. They don’t have to get a doctor’s note or find a replacement worker, and the law protects them against employer retaliation for taking time off either for themselves or for a child or other close relative who needs care.

But can this law actually work?

According to a 2015 survey of low-wage workers in Santa Barbara, many employees will not take advantage of the law. In the survey – conducted by the UC Santa Barbara Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy – more than half of respondents said they worked while sick at some point in the last year. They cited many reasons for doing so, most commonly not being able to afford taking the day off and being afraid that they would be fired, demoted or have their hours cut.

Non-citizens, mostly Hispanic, worked an average of 14 days while sick last year, while citizens worked about 10. Employees in agriculture and food services worked between 22 and 25 days a year while sick.

Among those injured on the job, nearly 40 percent failed to report their condition. Businesses with more than 50 workers did not deny sick leave requests in our survey, but in smaller workplaces, workers told us sick leave was often denied.

Our Spanish-speaking survey takers recorded story after story illuminating these raw statistics. A 28-year-old Mexican immigrant reported that when she was a restaurant cashier, she asked for pregnancy leave. At first management agreed, but when she showed her supervisor a doctor’s note, he told her that her cashier’s job had been filled by another workmate.

The sick leave law should help some of these people, but it is going to be a real uphill battle. Few small employers have even heard of the statute, and when they do it seems likely many will resist full implementation. As the statistics and stories make clear, worker rights are stillborn when the boss has all the power.

California could hire thousands of new inspectors to monitor and enforce the sick leave law, but that is surely a non-starter. More promising would be a big boost to the minimum wage, which would give workers a cash cushion in case of sickness or injury.

But what we really need are workers unafraid to assert their rights and collective organizations that can police the new sick leave law. That’s what unions did with all the social legislation from the Progressive era and the New Deal.

We need them again – in every workplace – to make California liberalism truly touch the lives of millions.

Nelson Lichtenstein is director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara.