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Pandemic prompts Santa Rosa to consider expanding paid sick leave rules for local employers

Santa Rosa this week is poised to require a wider swath of local employers to meet federal sick leave rules that require most employers to offer additional paid time during 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A proposed emergency rule going before the City Council on Tuesday would close loopholes in federal coronavirus sick leave legislation Congress passed in March by including local workers for companies that have national workforces of 500 or more, as well as health care workers and emergency responders.

Under the proposal, spearheaded by workers’ advocacy group North Bay Jobs with Justice and the North Bay Labor Council, those three categories of workers would join most others whose employers are now required by federal law to offer an extra two full weeks of paid sick time through 2020.

Santa Rosa’s local emergency rule would go further by removing Congress’ limit on sick leave compensation for child care, such as a parent or guardian caring for a child whose school or day care is closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The aim is to discourage people from working while sick and to decrease the chance of a person spreading COVID-19 out of financial desperation, said Mara Ventura, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice.

"Workers are having to choose between staying home sick and possibly not be able to make rent that month or not put food on their family’s table,“ Ventura said. ”That is just not an appropriate choice, regardless of a pandemic, but it is certainly not the choice that we want any workers to be making when they’re trying to flatten the curve and keep businesses open.“

Noting that Gov. Gavin Newsom in April announced paid sick leave benefits for food sector workers at large companies, Ventura said her organization’s goal is to level the playing field by extending the sick leave benefits to employees of companies with more than 500 workers outside of the food supply chain.

In Santa Rosa, that group of employers would include large retailers and contractors, technology stores and gas station chains. The ordinance would also apply to a broad swath of health care workers, including staff at nursing homes and care facilities and pharmacies. Covered emergency responders would include paramedics and emergency medical technicians working for private companies, but not police officers, firefighters, dispatch operators or military service people, because government employees would be exempt from the requirement.

Though the measure’s key points were disseminated among the business and labor communities weeks ago, city staff published the full text of the ordinance late last week per state open meetings laws. Santa Rosa’s plan to vote on the issue Tuesday — less than a week after the ordinance became public — rankled some in the business community who feel they didn’t have adequate opportunity to weigh in on the proposal.

“The final details and language of this ordinance just became available, leaving no time for meaningful engagement with the business community, which will be required to implement the ordinance immediately, or a needed understanding of the implications of the ordinance,” wrote Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, in a Monday letter to the City Council. “It is completely unacceptable to enact policy in this way.”

Rumble’s letter acknowledged that “employees should not be put in a position where they have no other option than to go to work while sick, an even greater imperative during this pandemic.”

But Santa Rosa’s sick leave vote ”comes at the exact moment when businesses can least afford it, while they are closing or struggling to make it through the current crisis,“ Rumble wrote.

The sick leave measure is coming before the City Council as an “urgency ordinance” — meaning that it would take effect immediately, but also that it would need five votes instead of the usual four to pass — at the recommendation of two members, Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming and Councilman John Sawyer, who form a city task force on economic recovery.

Both Fleming and Sawyer noted that because Santa Rosa would be lining up with the federal law, which only covers the remainder of 2020, the ordinance would be in effect for less than six months if approved by the City Council.

And Fleming pointed out that removing a broad exemption for health care employers would extend extra paid sick leave to workers at nursing home facilities — prime candidates for potentially lethal COVID-19 outbreaks.

“I’m concerned that their eagerness to oppose this is really going to undercut our economic recovery in the long run,” Fleming said of business opposition. “The places we know that are experiencing outbreaks are the places we’re trying to target.”

The number of people who could benefit from extra sick leave during a pandemic — or who could suffer without it — lends enough merit for the City Council to consider it as an urgency measure, Sawyer said.

“Because government can work slowly at times, if we were to go through the standard protocols, there could be some people who could slip through the cracks,” he said.

Santa Rosa’s ordinance would leave in place an exemption for small businesses that are experiencing severe economic distress as well as for government entities, such as the city of Santa Rosa.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is expected to consider a similar proposal later this month. The board reviewed a similar pitch from labor advocates early last month.

Separately, the City Council is set to approve an extension of the city’s deal with the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association, the union that represents the city’s sworn police force, through Dec. 31 to allow the city and the officers to negotiate a new agreement that takes into account the financial hit to the city dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to city documents.

While the city and police officers negotiate, the force is set to receive at least 10 hours of extra time off “in recognition of the unique responsibilities of police officers to the community” during the pandemic ”and the resultant high level of potential exposure to the virus,“ according to the proposed extension agreement.

Officers would accrue an additional 2.5 hours of paid time off, capped at 60 hours, for each full week that Sonoma County is under a local shelter-in-place order, and they’ll have to use those hours by June 30, per the agreement.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

Editors Note: A previous version of this story misstated what types of first responder would be covered by the expanded sick leave.

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