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Santa Rosa likely to extend COVID-19 sick leave, make city workers eligible

Santa Rosa appears likely to reinstate a program of expanded sick leave for local workers affected by COVID-19 after letting the system of extra paid time off lapse at the end of 2020 along with the underlying federal rules.

The City Council on Tuesday expressed a clear consensus to revive and extend to at least March 31 a version of the program it passed in July. Then, the city passed an expansion to a federal program that offers up to $5,110 over 80 hours of paid sick time to workers for most employers — though not to city employees — by removing a cap on compensation available to caretakers and applying the rules citywide to companies with 500 or more workers, which Congress left exempt.

The federal and local requirements both ended Dec. 31, though Congress extended through March the federal tax credits offered to businesses who give employees paid leave through the program, which covers those who are sick with COVID-19 or who have to take care of a relative because of the pandemic. Several California jurisdictions already have extended their programs, and Santa Rosa may consider extending their program to June 30 or indefinitely by linking it to the eventual end of the COVID-19 emergency.

The move toward greater sick leave protections for workers comes amid heightened local spread of COVID-19, and council members generally acknowledged the need for workers to have ample sick time to avoid further spreading the virus.

“We told the people of Santa Rosa that we were going to sunset at the end of the year. We were doing that in anticipation of things being really different with COVID-19,” said Councilman John Sawyer. “The stage has changed, and I think we need to respond to that change.”

Tuesday’s session did not include a vote on the item, leaving council members to find consensus by sounding each other out and taking virtual “straw polls.”

The earliest the council could vote on the program is Jan. 26, leaving a gap of more than three weeks between its expiration and its potential resumption. Some on the council said they favored making the program retroactive, but the city’s legal staff hurried to head that off for fear of potential litigation.

“Retroactivity is something that is generally disfavored in the law,” said Jeff Berk, the chief assistant city attorney.

Business advocates have said that it’s unfair to potentially require them to pay several thousand dollars per worker, especially in cases where they’d be doing so without the ability to recoup their costs in tax credits, as would be the case for companies covered under the city’s rules but not the federal policy. The White House and both branches of Congress soon will be controlled by Democrats, who are seen as more likely to approve more generous coronavirus stimulus and relief packages.

The city, which did not make itself responsible for enforcement, has not been able to show any data to answer questions about how many workers have used the extra time off, how many hours they’ve taken or whether businesses have complied with the rules.

Councilman Tom Schwedhelm expressed some reticence about moving forward with the lack of evidence but indicated he would join his colleagues in supporting an extension.

“It’s a struggle with me,” Schwedhelm said. “But where I’m kind of landing is, I think we should continue it.”

Council members generally expressed support for covering the city’s workforce in a future version of the program and for not “reloading” the balance of sick leave hours available for workers, meaning those who already have used their 80 extra hours would not be eligible.

However, the specifics of the program — which may be affected by any new federal COVID-19 legislation over the next couple of months — are likely to be reviewed multiple times before council members agree to vote on it.

“I don’t mean any disrespect to the council,” Councilman Jack Tibbetts said after rounds of questions and discussion, “but I don’t think we understand this.”

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

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