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Sonoma County weighs local paid sick leave mandate for large employers

With Sonoma County poised for wider economic reopening this week, labor advocates are seeking greater protections for employees who have limited access to paid sick leave at some of the nation’s most well-known companies.

The Board of Supervisors invited advocates last week to pitch a local law that would require companies with 500 or more employees to provide two weeks of paid sick leave, closing a loophole in the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed in late March.

The proposed ordinance targets some of the nation’s biggest chain stores, even though many offer some form of sick leave. The proposal would require them to provide 80 hours of paid sick leave, as mandated by the new federal law for companies that employ fewer than 500 people.

Local labor leaders Maddy Hirshfield and Mara Ventura implored county supervisors to act quickly to curb the risk of a spike in COVID-19 cases, citing studies showing low-wage workers often go to work ill because they are not paid for their time off. State law requires employers to provide only a minimum of three days of paid sick leave, making an expansion of the program crucial to stop the spread of COVID-19, they said.

“This is a public health ?problem in the best of times,” said Hirshfield, political director for the North Bay Labor Council. “During a pandemic, it’s a nightmare.”

Advocates pointed to companies such as Target, Home Depot, Walmart and chain gas stations as the types of companies that would be covered by the local ordinance, although many have paid leave or have voluntarily added it in response to the pandemic. Target, for example, announced March 12 it would give two weeks of paid sick leave for workers infected with the coronavirus or for employees who are under mandatory quarantine orders.

Local advocates want to expand paid sick leave to those taking care of ill family members, and for those unable to work because schools are closed due to COVID-19 - both circumstances covered in the federal law that exempts the nation’s largest companies.

Oakland, San Jose, the city and county of Los Angeles and the city of San Francisco have all drafted similar ordinances in the past couple of months.

The Board of Supervisors appeared open to a local requirement for larger employers, but on the condition that small, locally owned shops wouldn’t be negatively impacted by the move.

“It’s obvious we need to hold the mega-corporations accountable,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the board vice chairperson. “I share the concern around small businesses. I also think there are ways we could do both.”

Peter Rumble, chief executive officer of the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, said business leaders were blindsided by the proposal and that it has generated significant concern.

“Nobody reached out to the business community to see what kind of impact it would have,” Rumble said. Business owners don’t want workers coming to work sick, he said, but many small businesses are enduring unprecedented hits to their bottom line. “To put an additional cost directly onto the employer is extremely problematic, despite being absolutely aligned. It’s going to be really interesting to see what comes back.”

Hirshfield, who disputed that claim the business community had been kept out of the loop, said her preferred ordinance does require small businesses to pay for increased sick leave, but she said small businesses can apply for federal hardship funds to ease their burden.

Still, questions remain about the economic and political ramifications of a local move to address a gap in federal law.

Just 10 days after the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance on paid leave, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti used his authority April 8 to exempt large swaths of businesses from the city’s measure, citing unintended impacts to the already struggling private sector. Garcetti exempted businesses with 500 or fewer local employees, businesses that provide at least 160 ?hours of paid leave annually, and any business that has had to close for 14 days becaused of shelter-in-place policies, according to the mayor’s emergency order.

The Sonoma County Counsel’s Office, strapped for time and resources amid the pandemic, will allocate 30-40 hours and up to $15,000 in staff time to research the proposal before coming back to the Board of Supervisors with options at the end of July.

Ventura said her organization’s legal counsel ensured her the county has the authority to close a loophole in federal law, and she pointed to draft ordinances in other cities and counties statewide as further evidence of the legality of such a move.

But officials also were wary of the pitfalls looming in any legal battle with high-powered, multi-national companies.

“If you look at the cities that have done it, they’re big cities,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “I think we should watch them carefully, see whether or not they get sued. … For us to put our foot into their business in that way, I don’t see it as being feasible, financially, and I don’t see it as being legal either.”

County Counsel Bruce Goldstein told supervisors the work to bring something back to the board would require outside assistance.

“We have never really dealt with putting requirements on private employers,” Goldstein said during the meeting. “We would consult with an outside law firm.”

Any ordinance to address paid sick leave in the era of coronavirus would join a slew of programs - existing and newly created - that employees can already tap into in cases of time off for illness.

Workers in California have access to disability insurance, paid family leave and California paid sick leave. The new federal law for sick leave and family medical leave, as well as a new state executive order requiring paid sick leave for food sector workers, have bolstered the sick leave safety net during ?the pandemic.

But advocates say one major group of employees has been left out: low-wage, hourly workers at nonfood-related businesses that have 500 or more employees nationally.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, the board chair, supports closing the loophole, but she said it would be at least a month before any ordinance could return for a vote and go into effect.

In the meantime, advocates will continue working behind the scenes to build support. Ventura said those conversations are already taking place, and she’s confident the board will act to protect employees.

“In terms of timing, it’s really been in the past few weeks that we’ve experienced our first major workplace clusters,” Hopkins said. “That, to me, really brings this issue to the forefront. I think that puts some pressure on this conversation.”

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

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