Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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Ill feelings on paid sick leave bill

The measure is likely to clear the state Senate this summer. Business lobbyists may urge a veto from the governor.

For maybe five times in the last 15 years, Manuela Mendez has had to drag herself to work at a fast-food restaurant in La Mirada, coughing and congested.

"I go to work because we need the money," she said in Spanish. "It's difficult to work. I carry microbes that contaminate my work mates, and that's a problem for the customers."

The 40-year-old mother of two does not think it is fair that she and an estimated 6 million California workers -- about 40% of the state workforce -- do not have the right to take a day of paid sick leave to recuperate from an illness or injury, see a doctor or care for a family member who is ill.

Mendez, an activist with the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is part of a broad coalition that includes labor unions, health advocates and women's groups backing a bill that would give all employees in the state at least five paid sick days a year.

The bill, AB 2716, has passed the Assembly on a 45-33 vote and is expected to clear the state Senate this summer.

If that happens, business lobbyists are expected to ask Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for a veto. He has a solid history of siding with the California Chamber of Commerce when it comes to vetoing bills on the chamber's self-styled list of "job killers."

The measure by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) is modeled on recently approved municipal laws in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and is similar to proposals being considered in a dozen other states and in Milwaukee.

"People shouldn't have to worry that if they get sick, they'll lose their job," Ma said. "Paid sick days are good for a healthy economy."

Most California business organizations disagree. Ma's bill is near the top of the chamber's list of alleged anti-employer legislation. Granting paid sick leave would hurt workers more than it would help, chamber lobbyist Marc Burgat contends.

"If you increase some costs to employers, they'll have to decrease other costs by cutting hours or the number of employees," he testified at a recent hearing on the bill.

An in-house study released last week by the National Federation of Independent Business, a small-business association, said that granting paid sick leave to all workers would during the next five years destroy 370,000 jobs and cost California companies $59.3 billion in lost sales.

"When California faces an unemployment rate of 6.8%, it is absolutely outrageous to impose more mandates on small business," said John Kabateck, the federation's state director.

Although business lobbyists say that granting California workers paid sick leave will cause widespread economic dislocations, that hasn't been the case in San Francisco, the only place in the state that currently mandates such a benefit.

"I can only say that the sky has not fallen in San Francisco because of the sick leave law," said Greg Asay, a senior analyst with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. "San Francisco's economy has been very strong. It's striking how relatively unscathed we've been with the recession or probably recession."

The labor standards office reported getting only about 75 sick leave complaints from workers during the first year of the new law. All the cases were resolved informally, the office said.

Small Business California, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, said it had gotten negative reactions from about 35 employers. Most of the problems involved changes in how payroll records are kept, the organization said.

But restaurateurs, probably the city's largest class of small-business owners, support paid sick leave.

"Sick leave, especially for people who handle food for a living, is an important public policy," said Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Assn.

"The mandate is affordable, considering the public benefit," Westlye said.

Golden Gate's parent group, the California Restaurant Assn., is fighting the bill in Sacramento and is a lead member of the business coalition that is relying on Schwarzenegger for a veto, if needed.

The governor so far has taken no stance, spokesman Aaron McLear said.

"Obviously, he understands the merits of the bill," he said. "But he does have concerns about the effect it could have on business during this tough economy."

Tough is having to go to work with a headache and fever, countered Juana Pablo, 48, who has spent the last 14 years sewing garments in South Los Angeles to support five children, ages 7 to 17.

"I have to go to work when I feel sick," Pablo said. "If I stay home, I'd lose my job."