Spotlight Exclusives

California۪s New Paid Sick Days Law: Lessons and Cautions

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Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the largest expansion of guaranteed paid sick leave in the country, the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014 (AB 1522). When this law goes into effect next year, approximately 6.5 million workers in California will no longer be forced to consistently choose between their paychecks or their health because they will be guaranteed three paid sick days a year to care for themselves or an ill relative.

The passage of this law offers important benefits to all Californians. But it also offers valuable lessons for communities seeking to enact paid sick days laws to improve the health and well-being of workers and their families.

Today, certain workers disproportionately lack access to paid sick days, including Hispanics, as well as low-wage workers employed in retail and food service industries. These workers have the most to gain from paid sick daysand the most to lose without them. Access to paid sick days improves employee productivity and public health, and improves an employee۪s chances of maintaining a stable income. On the flip side, research has shown that for these groups, losing out on just three days of pay can put at risk their ability to afford food for the week or reliable childcare.

Research also shows that paid sick leave is an important policy issue for all of us. When workers don۪t have access to paid sick days, they have to choose between going to work sick or losing their income. This unfair choice puts extra pressure on low-income working parents especially, who often use sick days to care for ill children or other family members.

If we want to help families break the cycle of poverty, we have to encourage ways for them to meet their work responsibilities and their family obligations, since our society benefits from both. In fact, communities around the country have been on the forefront of this issue. Connecticut was the first state to pass paid sick leave legislation, and several cities have passed similar ordinances.

But California۪s new law has several important elements worth highlighting.

For instance, the law requires employers both big and small to offer paid sick days, setting it apart from most others in the country. This is fundamental to the law۪s efficacy given that nearly one quarter of California۪s workers are employed at businesses with fewer than 20 employees.

The law also allows employees to use their earned sick days to care for family members, including grandparents, children, domestic partners, siblings, and spouses. It also explicitly includes part-time, seasonal, and temporary workers, an often-overlooked portion of the workforce. In a state with some of the deepest and most persistent poverty in the country, this aspect of the legislation makes it particularly significant.

Lessons can also be found in the law۪s limitations.    

The law offers three paid sick days, which is a critical minimum standard, but may not be sufficient for all workers. Research based on San Francisco۪s paid sick days ordinance, passed in 2006, shows that working parents and employees with chronic health conditions used a median of four and five days, respectively. However, local campaigns that promise workers more than the state۪s new minimum number of days would trump the statewide law, if passed.

Although the state۪s law is expansive in scope, some workers are left out. Last-minute negotiations in Sacramento led to an exemption of more than 385,000 of the state۪s in-home care workers who are paid with state and federal dollars. Because they are different from covered workers in no way other than the source of funds that pay them, and because they care for the elderly and individuals with disabilities trying to avoid hospitalization, it is critical that subsequent legislation addresses their need for paid sick days as well. Other states۪ efforts should avoid these carve-outs, which inevitably affect those who need access to paid sick time most.

Last, California۪s law would benefit from strengthened enforcement and awareness activities, and states and jurisdictions should be open to innovative ways to ensure laws are meaningful. New York and Jersey City, for example, allow public authorities the ability to proactively investigate violations of the law, rather than rely on employee complaints, as California۪s law does now.    

Yet, California is still a vanguard of social policies, and the passage of this law is another chapter in that volume of stories. Soon, Californians will have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that when they inevitably get sick, they won۪t immediately be risking their health or their livelihood to get better. We look forward to the passage of similar, even better laws outside of California. And when that happens, we۪ll look forward to celebrating an increasingly healthy and vibrant country for all.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Ann O۪Leary is the vice president and director and Rey Fuentes is a research associate with the Children & Families Program at Next Generation.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at commentary@spotlightonpoverty.org.

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