California Takes Small But Healthy Step Toward Paid Sick Days

Six and a half million Californians had reason to celebrate on September 10 when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Healthy Families, Healthy Workplaces Act (AB 1522). For 44 percent of the state’s population who don’t earn a single paid sick day, this simple act moves them a step closer to catching up with the rest of the world—being able to care for themselves or a loved one without losing a paycheck or a job.

Among them will be Maria Elena Jefferson, a Walmart worker who has to drag herself to work sick because the giant corporation keeps her just below the 36 hours a week required for full-time status and access to paid sick days [under the new law, you just have to work 30 or more days within a year of your employment to qualify]. Many of her co-workers who are full-time will also benefit. Right now, as is typical in the retail and grocery industries, they earn paid sick days but in fact are never paid for their first day out sick, whether that’s the only day they need to stay home or the first of several days.

Millions more in the state who already have paid sick days will now be able to use them to care for a sick family member or deal with the aftermath of violence—and can do so without being disciplined for taking the time they’ve earned. Although the number of sick-leave days per year required by the new law is minimal (three), municipalities and employers can go beyond it—as San Francisco and San Diego have already done and Oakland is poised to do.

California becomes only the second state in the U.S., along with a growing number of cities (nearly a dozen, including new victories in New Jersey), to guarantee that workers earn a minimum number of paid sick days. A body of evidence now exists that shreds the opponents’ predictions of doom, showing the benefits of paid sick days to workers and families, to businesses and the economy.

But one critical group will not benefit from the new law: the mostly female workforce paid through the state that provides critical in-home care and services to vulnerable elders or people dealing with chronic illness or disabilities.

Christine Petraeus in San Luis Obispo is one of these workers. She moved back to California after working in a denim mill in Georgia and getting an associate degree to be a social worker assistant, only to find no jobs in the field. “I knew home care was a job I could do that always had an opening,” she said.

Christine calls her clients “wonderful people.” Thanks to her, a 92-year-old woman named Lois dependent on a walker is able to maintain some independence and dignity. Christine knows well that Lois can’t afford to get sick, so a flu for Christine could become fatal pneumonia for Lois. But staying home and losing even a couple hours pay “hurts the pocketbook,” says Christine, describing the $50 cost of filling her tank and the money she had to borrow for recent dental work. “Every hour counts when you have bills to pay, rent to pay.” Until recently, Christine worked seven days a week just to get by, but finally decided at the age of 54 that she needs one day of rest.

When she found out home-care workers were excluded from the paid sick days bill, Christine was outraged. “That’s discriminating,” she told me. “We work hard to make sure clients can stay at home. Our bodies do take their toll. We get sick, too.”

Christine linked the exclusion to the devaluing of women’s work:

I think politicians view it as domestic, no different than caring for a child at home. They don’t see us as workers, as laborers—they see us as the old ‘50s, just a homemaker. It’s because we’re women and it’s expected from us to do these things and still maintain the low wages and low pay.

Christine was glad to learn her daughter’s husband, a vineyard worker, will be among those now earning paid sick days. Three days isn’t enough, but it’s better than none, she says, recounting a time recently when her son-in-law stayed out a day or two and went back in, even though he was really sick, because he just couldn’t afford to lose pay.

For herself and other excluded home-care workers, she’s clear: “I’m not standing for that—we won’t suck it up.” Christine is proud that her union, United Domestic Workers, an AFSCME local, as well as SEIU United Long Term Care Workers and the broad California Work and Family Coalition whose organizing led to this historic win, are pledging to keep fighting to end the exclusion and expand the bill.

Crossposted from Family Values @ Work

Photo by Flickr user Anna Gutermuth under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Ellen Bravo is strategic consultant to Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions working for paid sick and safe days, family and medical leave insurance and other policies that value families at work.