Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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Sick leave bill returns to Assembly for consideration

A bill that would mandate every employer in California pay their workers for time off when they're sick could be on track for a vote later this spring or summer after a virtually identical measure failed to pass last year.

The bill has been proposed by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, and it has passed the labor and employment and judiciary committees. It now moves to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, possibly by the end of this month, said Curt Hardeman, Ma's capital director.

Ma's 2008 bill passed the assembly and died in the Senate Appropriations Committee, mostly because it would have cost the state money for sick time paid to home health care worker positions, some of which are state-funded.

While the 2009 version is almost unchanged, both sides of this debate say new conditions in California, both economic and medical, have changed in the past year. They argue that these changes support their respective cause.

Proponents of AB 1000 say it is not only a workplace issue and a way to improve conditions for the working poor but a question of health. According to estimates, there are 5.4 million people in California who do not get paid time off and who could be coming to work when they're sick, risking the spread of illnesses.

That cause has been amplified in the past week by the outbreak of a new strain of flu virus.

"Probably the new awareness of swine flu reiterates the importance of this as a public health issue," Hardeman said.

Opponents say the measure would burden small businesses, already operating on slender profit margins, with additional costs. John Kabateck, California executive director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the bill could cost the state 370,000 jobs over five years because small-business owners will decide to do extra work themselves and not hire employees.

The bill would give employees of businesses with more than 10 workers, full time and part time, as much as 72 hours of sick leave in a calendar year. Companies with fewer workers would have to provide 40 hours of sick time.

"It's difficult economic times, we realize that, and we don't want this to be about swine flu," said Netsy Firestein, founder and director of the California Labor Project for Working Families, a nonprofit group that supports the measure. "But people aren't in the position to make the right choices (about work and illnesses) because they won't get paid.

"It's just the right thing to do," Firestein said.

Currently no states have a law requiring sick pay, which, like vacation and other time-off perks, are granted at the employers' discretion. AB 1000 is modeled after a 2-year-old ordinance in Ma's home city of San Francisco. Two other major cities, Washington, D.C, and Milwaukee, have similar laws.

A Field Poll released last August found that 73 percent of California voters would support this kind of measure, and 77 percent were concerned that so many people do not currently get paid sick time.

Kabateck said most entrepreneurs care enough about their employees to pay them when they're out sick.

"The problem with AB 1000 is it forces small business owners into a one-size-fits-all situation," Kabateck said. "Perhaps it is a well-intended policy, but it will have the reverse effect on the people it aims to help. Most tell me they simply can't afford it."

At Riverside Patio 'N Pool, workers get three days a year in sick time, said Marc Loeb, the owner. He used to grant more time to workers at his Riverside and San Bernardino locations but it was costing too many man-hours, and Loeb said he thought the policy was being abused by workers who weren't actually sick.

"This is just another stumbling block for small businesses," Loeb said. "It's par for the course."