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Santa Rosa expands mandate for paid pandemic sick time to cover more employers

More Santa Rosa workers will be owed up to 80 hours of paid sick time amid the coronavirus pandemic after the City Council unanimously expanded the federal requirement to cover large employers, including national chains and businesses with more than 500 employees.

The council voted 7-0 on Tuesday to broaden that requirement, closing a loophole in federal pandemic legislation that mandated two weeks of paid sick leave for many employers, but not all.

The local changes cover companies with more than 500 workers that operate in Santa Rosa, as well as health care employees and emergency responders who do not work for government agencies, which are exempt. Such sick leave benefits are nearly universal in public sector jobs.

Santa Rosa’s new rule — passed as an “urgency ordinance” so it takes immediate effect — also expanded benefits for parents or guardians with dependent family members, such as children whose schools and day care sites have closed due to COVID-19. But it provides an exemption to that requirement for small businesses that are on the brink of financial ruin.

While the sick leave benefit is worth just over $5,000 for most workers, Congress capped the benefit for caretakers at $2,000. Santa Rosa decided that wasn’t good enough.

“All of us who are parents on the council can relate: trying to juggle being a parent and trying to work simultaneously is very different than wanting to play hooky for a day,” said Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming.

Fleming’s comments came after Councilman Jack Tibbetts raised the prospect of workers abusing the extra benefit, admitting that he himself had taken a trip to the Russian River on what was ostensibly a “sick day.”

Tibbetts later apologized to Fleming while voicing concern about the cost of the benefit from a business owner’s perspective.

“The added $3,000 we’re asking them to shoulder ... is probably going to be difficult and confusing for a lot of business owners,” Tibbetts said.

The city’s sick leave expansion stemmed from a pitch by labor advocates from North Bay Jobs with Justice and the North Bay Labor Council, which also have spurred Sonoma County to explore expanding sick leave rules. The idea is that employees who lack adequate paid time off for illness will feel pressured to come to work while sick, an especially risky scenario amid the pandemic.

“In this pandemic, the well-being of our community is dependent on every single individual’s ability to step away from the public when the virus is impacting them,” said Emily Conway with the North Bay Labor Council.

It was the business community, notably the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, that raised a sharp objection to the draft emergency measure, which became public late last week.

Ananda Sweet, the vice president of public policy and workforce development with Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, urged the council to delay the sick leave expansion. She read from a letter written Monday to the City Council by Chamber CEO Peter Rumble that called for all small businesses — not just those already in dire financial straits — to be exempt from the ordinance’s enhanced benefits.

“Small businesses are the foundation of Santa Rosa’s economy and simply do not have the financial safety net to sustain this level of added cost,” Sweet read.

Councilman Ernesto Olivares noted that while the business community had several reasons for concern, the worry Tibbetts raised about potential “abuse” of sick time wasn’t one of them.

“We should not be bringing that up,” Olivares said. “I do not think this is the time to be adding barriers to this or to employees trying to deal with this COVID pandemic.”

Like the federal sick leave law, Santa Rosa’s expansion is meant to be temporary and is set to expire at year’s end.

In a separate vote, the City Council also approved an extension to the city’s existing agreement with the Santa Rosa Police Officers’ Association and authorized up to 60 extra hours of paid sick leave for police, accruing on a weekly basis for each week Sonoma County is under a local health order because of the coronavirus.

The vote came as daily confirmed COVID-19 cases in Sonoma County have dramatically increased, raising the prospect that local business activities will be curtailed once again as Sonoma joins a state watch list alongside about two dozen other counties that are seeing increased rates of spread and strain on coronavirus care capacity.

Sonoma County had 700 active COVID-19 cases at last report and an overall tally of 1,487 infected individuals, 14 of whom have died.

California has confirmed more than 284,000 cases and more than 6,500 deaths. The U.S. hit the 3 million case mark Wednesday, with more than 130,000 succumbing to COVID-19 and complications from the virus. Globally, the virus, which was first identified in Wuhan, China, has spread to infect more than 11.6 million people and has killed more than 539,000.

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

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