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Sonoma County supervisors signal support for paid sick leave expansion

Sonoma County supervisors on Thursday signaled their support for a sweeping expansion of paid sick leave benefits that would cover workers at the county’s largest companies, a move doctors and advocates say is crucial to slowing the spread of COVID-19.

In their first public discussion on the topic since June 9, supervisors also endorsed higher daily and maximum paid leave for caregivers, including those attending sick loved ones or staying home to look after children who can’t be at school.

The moves appear to mirror a suite of labor-backed mandates on employers that the Santa Rosa City Council adopted last month, over the strong objection of business interests who say they add unsustainable costs amid fragile economic times.

But the board’s female majority said they would advance a county measure without added benefits for parents and caregivers, pointing to evidence that women have shouldered an especially heavy burden in the pandemic.

Reading from a list of sobering statistics, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, a mother of three, said the United States is in the midst of a “female recession,” one that has erased millions of female jobs and decades of gains for women in the workforce.

“I feel so strongly that we need to treat this equally,” Hopkins said, her voice rising.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said with a smile.

“I’m with her,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board’s senior incumbent.

The board is set to vote on an ordinance including its favored provisions Aug. 18. It will require a four-fifths result to pass.

The board’s direction Thursday gave shape to an ordinance that will apply to up to 12,000 businesses in unincorporated Sonoma County — including 275 businesses with at least 500 employees nationwide. Those companies would be required to provide their workers with at least at least 80 hours of paid sick leave, as mandated by Congress for smaller companies in the federal coronavirus relief law signed into law in March.

Among the largest businesses that would fall under a new county mandate are Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, large winemaker Korbel and Fairmount Sonoma Mission Inn, according to county records.

The wider group of companies, those smaller that 500 employees, would be affected by the new, higher caps on caregiver benefits. Supervisors appeared to endorse lifting those caps from $200 to $511 daily, and for a two-week period, from $2,000 to $5,110.

Small business representatives have pushed back hard on that provision, both at the Santa Rosa City Council and the Board of Supervisors.

“To be clear, any expansion of costs and requirements on small businesses that go beyond what is already required by the Federal government is unacceptable,” Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, wrote in an email to the board before its noon meeting. “This comes at the exact moment when businesses can least afford it, while they are closing or struggling to make it through the current crisis, without meaningful financial support or resources to help.”

In addition to Santa Rosa, San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles have expanded paid leave benefits for workers of companies operating in their jurisdictions.

Labor advocates and their allies have helped orchestrate the push to pass the local legislation and have voiced exasperation that it would run into such staunch opposition from employers.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, at the beginning of the discussion, sought to acknowledge both sides.

“There’s some question and tension and angst and everything in between,” said Rabbitt. “If you’re sick, I don’t care if you don’t have any sick time, you need to stay home, and you need to be reimbursed for that.”

The board’s lone dustup came during the discussion about lifting caps for caretaker benefits. Rabbit and Supervisor James Gore both hedged on whether the county should take a similar approach to Santa Rosa and increase the maximum daily and two-week payouts.

Their comments sparked a rousing response from Hopkins, whose description of a child care system on the ropes proved persuasive.

“The sudden loss of childcare is an emergency,” she said.

For large businesses that would be covered under the county rule, supervisors appeared to back an offset that would allow companies to provide either at least 80 hours of paid sick leave or 160 hours of time off total.

The county also appears poised to exempt from the caregiver mandate employers in the health care sector and those outside of government who employ first responders.

Labor representatives, doctors, workers and moms said it was time for the supervisors to protect workers amid an unprecedented pandemic that has only grown since county leaders first mulled the topic.

In the two months since Sonoma County supervisors first discussed the possibility of expanding paid sick leave for workers, the county’s caseload has nearly quadrupled, going from 671 to 3,296 on Thursday.

In that time, workplace COVID-19 clusters have been uncovered, county leaders have learned of the disease’s disproportionate impact on Latino residents and dozens of local people have died of the disease.

Advocates, including Sonoma County Democratic Party Chair Pat Sabo, said workers shouldn’t have to choose between their health and a paycheck.

Dr. Veronica Jordan, a family medicine specialist in Sonoma County who has treated COVID-19 patients, said a countywide paid sick leave policy is necessary to combat a surging virus locally. Otherwise, she indicated, people will continue to go to work sick.

“I can tell you, every person I told to not go to work looked at me like I had three eyes,” Jordan said. “The only way to stop that is to pay them to stay home.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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