Last week lawmakers, advocates, and workers gathered together in Los Angeles to celebrate the Governor’s signing of Assembly Bill 1522, heralded as an “historic action” to give millions of workers access to paid sick days. The Governor annotated his signing with this promise: “Whether you’re a dishwasher in San Diego or a store clerk in Oakland, this bill frees you of having to choose between your family’s health and your job.”
Not so fast. Important aspects of the bill are not likely to reach a significant portion of California’s workforce and may, in fact, be setting some workers back – not just in California, but across the U.S.
First, California will be providing significantly fewer hours of paid sick leave than the ten other state and local governments that have already enacted paid sick days legislation. By capping the amount of sick leave hours to just 24 hours a year, California took a significant step back from the nationwide standard, which provided up to 40 hours a year. Since many jurisdictions often look to California for guidance in providing new workplace rights, AB 1522 now lowers the standard for other state and local governments weighing their own paid sick days legislation. It also lowers the bar for unionized workers who may want to bargain for more sick days than this law provides.
Second, AB 1522 gives short shrift to the critical issue of enforcing this new right at a time when our state is facing a “workplace enforcement” crisis. In a 2010 study, researchers found that roughly 42 percent of Los Angeles workers in low wage industries had experienced at least one pay-related violation. Without robust enforcement, why should we expect that workers in low wage industries won’t be denied access to paid sick days in the same manner they are denied other basic workplace rights, such as the minimum wage?
Yet, within weeks of the bill’s introduction the language providing a private right of action for enforcement was removed to appease business opposition. Instead, enforcement of the new law will be delegated to our underfunded and over-burdened State Labor Commissioner’s Office. Currently, it takes an average of 6 months to get an administrative hearing — cold comfort for a paycheck-to-paycheck worker who has just lost a job for taking a sick day.
Finally, the bill deals yet another blow to In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) workers, who have consistently been denied standard workplace protections. These workers care for low-income elderly and disabled Californians. They are precisely the kind of workers who should have access to paid sick days, so that they do not endanger those they are caring for, many of whom are immuno-compromised. Excluding the 360,000 IHSS workers from coverage undermines the public safety concerns that served as the bedrock for paid sick days legislation.
And to what end? By all measures, paid sick leave benefits both employers and employees. A recent report on the impact of the San Francisco Paid Sick Leave Ordinance found that there was no negative impact on profitability or job growth. In addition, most San Francisco employers did not find implementation difficult. Excluding the predominately female and low-wage IHSS workforce from this bill is a tragedy for these workers and for the public.
The compromises required during the legislative process rarely result in sweeping reform. With any bill, the job of advocates is basically the same: accept the proper compromises and reject those that promise illusory “change” or, worse yet, set a lower standard.
The back-patting of those touting AB 1522 as a seminal advancement of workers’ rights sadly miss the mark. When lawmakers compromise national efforts by locking in a lower baseline, carving out historically disadvantaged workers and making enforcement more difficult for the workers who need it most, congratulations are not in order.
If lawmakers truly care about protecting California’s most vulnerable workers and setting a standard for the rest of the nation, they need to fight for legislation that is more robust and, most importantly, that apply to the entire workforce.
At the bill signing, Governor Brown said, “When you look at the power and the wealth that is accumulated by a very small percentage, and then you look at the people at the bottom … this is the least we can do and there’s more in the coming years.” Here he is right — this is the least we can do – and that’s a shame.