Some Central Valley farm workers lose paid COVID sick leave

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Farmers in the Central Valley have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Fresno Bee File

A California law that granted employees extended paid leave during the pandemic has expired. This could leave low-income workers in the Central Valley, including those employed by the region’s agricultural industry, in a vulnerable position in the months to come, worker advocates have said.

Now advocates are calling for an extension of the law and stronger protections for a workforce that has been disproportionately devastated by the physical, emotional and economic toll of the pandemic. But because federal funding for the program has also expired, many employers are opposed to having to shoulder the costs to keep it running.

“We’ve told lawmakers that the safety net of emergency COVID-19 protections for paid sick leave is vital for farm workers,” said Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the Delano-based California Farmworker Foundation. “This is something that is necessary. It will help them tremendously, and it will save lives at the end of the day. “

California requires employers to provide at least three days of paid sick leave per year. SB 95, which came into effect on March 29, provided for up to 80 hours of additional paid sick leave. It applied retroactively to eligible employees who had missed work due to COVID-19 between January 1 and September 30, and covered the two-week period during which people ill with COVID-19 were to be quarantined and no longer be contagious.

To benefit from the extended leave, public or private sector employees must have been employed by a company or organization with more than 25 employees. Workers could use the free time for some reasons related to COVID-19, including inability to work due to a contract with COVID-19; be required or advised to self-quarantine; go to vaccination appointments; recover from the side effects of the virus; or caring for family members with COVID-19.

SB 95 expired late last week, even as the highly infectious Delta variant swept through the region and sparked an explosion of cases that overwhelmed hospitals and caused outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools.

The most recent surge left low-wage workers with no choice but to stay home and self-quarantine – either to recover or to care for a child who has been exposed to the virus. Without extended paid time off, Hernandez and other worker advocates fear that many workers who cannot afford unpaid time off will return to work too early and potentially infect others. In many other cases, low-income families could also fall into extreme poverty or risk losing their homes, he said.

“Right now we are facing a Delta power surge and we know the spread continues to occur in rural communities where Latinos make up the majority of the population,” Hernandez said. “We have to make sure that this is high on the agenda, because otherwise we will have a population that will be homeless, which will not be able to provide for their children.”

Who would pay the cost of extending sick leave benefits?

Yet it is not known whether these demands can be met.

As its state vaccination efforts intensified, lawmakers hoped transmission rates would drop significantly by the September deadline. The state legislature was adjourned for the year on September 10, and no legislation was proposed to expand the law. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office told The Sacramento Bee in a statement he had “nothing more to add” on whether his office will make an effort to extend the leave.

The law’s expiration date of September 30 coincided with the end of federal tax credits for employers who provided the leave, meaning employers would have to foot the bill if it were to be extended.

In an Aug. 25 letter to lawmakers, the California Chamber of Commerce expressed opposition to the program’s expansion, noting that employers “cannot continue to subsidize the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Extending it, they said, “would encourage reluctance to vaccinate.”

“Such an extension would also place the burden of refusing employees to get vaccinated on struggling California businesses by forcing them to grant extra time off because their employees chose to refuse the readily available vaccination,” Ashley Hoffman wrote. , director of chamber policies. “In other words: extending sick leave will weigh on businesses and potentially cause more workers not to get vaccinated – in direct conflict with California’s best interests. “

But the Delta variant, which has led to an increase in breakthrough infections, has had a “disproportionate effect statewide,” said Ana Padilla, executive director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.

Regions like the Central Valley, where there is widespread resistance to vaccines and public health orders, fare much worse than parts of the state with tighter and more robust policies, she said. declared.

“There are counties like Los Angeles, where they are discuss the lifting of the mask mandate, and then you have other counties like Kern, where they called the National Guard just a few days ago, “she said.” We are still not in a place where the state should remove all safety provisions like additional paid sick leave, because without these state laws, residents – especially those in rural counties – will have nothing to depend on. ”

What other sick leave options are available?

Although the extra paid time off law has expired, in some cases workers could claim compensation through the extra program if they took unpaid time off due to COVID-19 in 2021, spokesperson Frank Polizzi said. of the State Department of Industrial Relations. In addition, workers who take paid time off under the supplemental program since September 30 can continue to do so, even if it has passed the deadline, he said.

And California workers still have other paid vacation options, he said.

Those exposed to COVID-19 at work can still receive paid sick leave in accordance with Cal / OSHA’s temporary emergency standards. These regulations require employers to grant paid exclusion leave to employees who cannot make it to work due to workplace exposure, he said in an email to The Bee. This provision, however, does not apply to workers who contract COVID-19 outside of the workplace.

Employees who receive COVID-19 can also take time off work through state disability insurance and workers’ compensation.

As they push for the extension of the law, advocates are now educating workers about their rights and connecting them to existing resources, said Jenya Cassidy, director of the California Work & Family Coalition.

In addition, they are also stepping up pressure on the state to change its current policy of paid family leave beyond the three-day mark.

“We educate people on what they have and it’s not enough so it can be very frustrating,” she said. “If anything, we should have learned in this pandemic how incredibly vital it is to know that you can take time off work if you are sick and contagious. It really made a difference for people knowing they had the right when they needed it most.

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Nadia Lopez covers the Latin community of the San Joaquin Valley for The Fresno Bee in partnership with Report for America. Prior to that, she worked as a City Hall reporter for San José Spotlight.


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