Supporters say law will slow spread of virus; critics call it unfair burden on local businesses
By David Garrick, San Diego Union Tribune
SEP. 9, 2020
SAN DIEGO — San Diego is trying to encourage more people sick with COVID-19 to stay at home with a new law granting paid sick leave to thousands of workers not covered by federal sick leave legislation.
The City Council voted 7-2 Tuesday to require San Diego businesses with at least 500 workers to provide 80 hours of paid sick leave to any employee who gets infected by COVID-19 or who has an infected family member.
Federal legislation approved in April already requires such paid leave for companies with fewer than 500 workers, but that exempts about 147 businesses in San Diego, the city treasurer estimated.
The new legislation, which must be approved a second time because it’s an ordinance, would eliminate that exemption within the city.
Supporters said the new law would help slow the spread of the virus and help many of the city’s low-income workers stay healthy.
Critics said the new law would be a burden on businesses already struggling during the pandemic.
San Diego would join Los Angeles, San Francisco and several other California cities that have passed similar laws.
San Diego’s law includes exemptions for emergency responders, health care workers, parcel delivery workers and companies with policies providing at least 160 hours of sick leave annually.
“Maintaining the health of our residents and their families must be our No. 1 priority even during such troubling economic times,” said Councilman Chris Ward, who spearheaded the legislation. “This would ensure San Diegans aren’t forced to choose between working and protecting their health, their families and the health of their co-workers.”
Ward said the new law would be in the same spirit of other recent city legislation providing financial relief to small businesses and enacting an eviction moratorium.
The state Legislature recently passed similar legislation, AB 1867, that would make the city law redundant. Ward said it was still important to pass the city law as a stopgap until Gov. Gavin Newsom signs the state legislation.
Council President Georgette Gómez said in a statement that the measure is crucial.
“These actions close a huge gap in federal sick-leave policy and ensure that some of our most vulnerable workers don’t permanently lose their jobs in the midst of these terrible economic conditions,” she said.
Councilman Scott Sherman, who cast one of the “no” votes, disagreed.
“It’s not really a stopgap measure — it’s really a political stunt,” he said. “It’s using the COVID crisis to give the unions stuff that they’ve asked for for years.”
Sherman noted that the federal legislation provided reimbursement money to companies required to provide paid sick leave, but the city legislation would not.
“This is, quite frankly, another mandate we’re putting on businesses that are already struggling during this pandemic,” he said, criticizing city officials for not soliciting feedback from affected businesses before Tuesday’s council vote.
The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce also criticized the city law, calling it redundant and confusing.
“This local ordinance on top of the state law will create confusion for employers,” said Rebecca Lieberman, a policy advisor for the chamber.
She unsuccessfully lobbied the council to increase the size of the businesses affected by the new law from those with 500 employees to those with 2,000 employees.
Ana Martinez of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a local think tank, said the new law would boost public health and create more equity for low-income residents and people of color.
“Ensuring paid sick leave is critical to ensuring workers stay at home,” she said. “COVID-19 has exacerbated and further revealed the existing inequities for workers in the city.”
A study released in June by the county’s regional planning agency found that Black and Latino communities within the region have been the hardest hit by COVID-19, with 45 percent of Black residents and 42 percent of Hispanic residents living in zip codes with above average COVID-19 cases and unemployment rates.
San Diego’s law would remain in effect through the end of the year, when the federal legislation is scheduled to end.
Tuesday’s council vote was along party lines, with the panel’s two Republicans — Sherman and Councilman Chris Cate — casting “no” votes.