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Sonoma County mulls expanding paid sick leave after Santa Rosa’s swift support

Sonoma County is taking a deliberate approach to a potential expansion of paid coronavirus sick leave for local employers after a speedy passage of similar Santa Rosa rules last month.

County supervisors on Thursday are scheduled to publicly discuss with their legal staff provisions to expand federal law that in March required many businesses to offer two extra weeks of paid time off for infected workers or those caring for someone afflicted by COVID-19. The Board of Supervisors then could vote on the resulting legislation on Aug. 18, when a four-fifths vote could put it in place immediately.

Santa Rosa and a handful of other California cities already have passed sick leave expansions of their own, urged on by labor advocates who say that if workers don’t have adequate paid time off for illness, they’ll feel forced to work while sick, potentially contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

The county should have the same safeguards in mind for employers and workers in its jurisdiction, said Maddy Hirshfield, political director for the North Bay Labor Council, which led a push for expanded sick leave alongside North Bay Jobs with Justice.

“If we wait, there’s all that time when people are probably going to work sick,” Hirshfield said. “If we want to get ahead of this pandemic, we’re going to need all the tools in the toolbox, and providing workers with paid sick leave is one of those tools.”

The ordinance, which would apply only in the unincorporated area outside of cities, is meant to be temporary, lining up with the federal expiration of expanded paid sick leave benefits at the end of the year. But some businesses and their advocates, stung by Santa Rosa’s expansion a month ago, likely will put up a fight on at least a couple of provisions in the county bill proposed by the labor-based coalition of supporters.

Santa Rosa’s rules had multiple tracks that went beyond the version passed by Congress and signed by President Trump. One was meant to close a loophole from Congress, which exempted businesses with more than 500 employees from the extra sick leave requirement. Santa Rosa, in response last month, expanded requirements to apply to not only big businesses but health care workers and first responders — while leaving the city itself and other public employers exempt.

On another track, the City Council also removed a cap on benefits for caregivers, making the full benefit, worth up to about $5,000, or $511 a day, available for workers with COVID-19 as well as those taking time off to care for someone with COVID-19. The original federal legislation put a cap of $2,000, or $200 a day, on benefits for caregivers.

That second set of moves is what concerns local businesses the most. While it’s understandable that Santa Rosa might want to close the loophole Congress created for large national companies, “we’ve gone so far beyond closing a loophole,” Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, said in a recent interview.

The expansion of the caregiver benefit, which applied to all Santa Rosa businesses regardless of size, poses a much greater burden to small businesses, he said. Santa Rosa appears to be the only city nationwide so far to expand the maximum value for parents and other caregivers from $2,000 per to $5,110 over two weeks of extra leave.

“Generally speaking, the overall sentiment has been extremely negative toward the expansion, in particular with regards to costs for small businesses,” Rumble said.

Santa Rosa also drew the ire of businesses by approving its sick leave expansion, which took effect immediately on July 7, less than a week after making the text of the ordinance available — leaving some business voices feeling unheard.

One local business owner, Chris Denny of creative agency The Engine is Red, characterized Santa Rosa’s ordinance as “shouting from the rooftops that we don’t care for our business community” in a July email to city officials after the City Council’s vote.

"I fundamentally believe we must, and can, do better to ensure the Santa Rosa and broader North Bay economy survives this fourth catastrophic disaster in three years,“ Denny wrote, noting the economic importance of small businesses. ”Ensuring their viability isn’t optional, without them, we have no workforce to protect.“

Sonoma County may avoid such pitfalls by taking a slower approach. The action the Board of Supervisors is set to take Thursday is not a vote on an actual sick leave expansion but a discussion on how to shape the extra benefits.

For example, supervisors might diverge from Santa Rosa on health care workers, for whom Santa Rosa eliminated a federal exemption.

And the county discussion also is likely to consider whether to cap paid COVID-19 sick leave for caregivers — or to offer them the same benefits as sick workers, as Santa Rosa chose to do.

Susan Gorin, chair of the Board of Supervisors, acknowledged that Santa Rosa’s ordinance included some provisions that “may have incensed the business community.” She said she’s already heard concerns from hospitals who would prefer the county keep intact federal exemptions for health care workers. The lone hospital exclusively in the county’s jurisdiction is Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center, which sits just north of the city limits.

But Gorin noted she also has heard from residents who are worried about the prospect of having to work sick or be exposed to sick co-workers.

“We don’t want to wait much longer in order to pass it,” Gorin said. “We want people to be healthy.”

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

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