San Francisco Considers Making Public Health Emergency Leave Permanent

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San Francisco Supervisor Gordon Mar is proposing a ballot measure to make paid sick leave permanently available during future health crises. (Courtesy SF Board of Supervisors)

Under a newly proposed ballot measure, many San Francisco workers would be able to receive additional paid sick leave benefits during future public health crises or unhealthy air days.

The measure, introduced Tuesday by Supervisor Gordon Mar, seeks to make permanent the city's current emergency benefit, which requires large San Francisco employers to grant two weeks of paid leave per year to some 200,000 workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal would make paid leave automatically available during any future public health emergency, such as a resurgence of the virus. It would also include coverage for disruptive unhealthy air quality days, like those caused by smoke from the 2018 Camp Fire.

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San Francisco workers — not just residents — at private companies with 500 or more employees would be eligible for the benefit, in addition to any other benefits employees already receive. It would be automatically available during declared public emergencies if workers get sick or have to care for a family member or if their work places are closed and they're unable to work remotely.

“We’re in the middle — or maybe just the start — of an historic pandemic with no clear end in sight," Mar, who represents the Sunset District, said in a statement. “Climate change continues to exacerbate our wildfire seasons, and future fires may be more dangerous than any before. We need laws that reflect the urgency and the grave reality of these threats and provide safety and security in the face of them.”

The proposal comes as the city and state continue to significantly loosen shelter-in-place restrictions, allowing many businesses to reopen, even as cases of the coronavirus continue to rise.

The United States is one of the few industrialized nations in the world where workers are not guaranteed paid sick leave, and in California, employers are only required to provide three days of paid sick leave.

Like the current emergency paid leave bill, the proposed measure would have no impact on city budgets, as the onus would rest entirely on employers, said Edward Wright, Mar's legislative aid.

“That's part of the reason why we focused on large employers,” he said, noting the strain it could place on small businesses. “They're better suited and more capable of providing this kind of benefit to their workers.”

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The measure needs six votes from the Board of Supervisors to be placed on the November ballot, where it would require approval from a majority of San Francisco voters. If it passes, San Francisco would be one of the first cities in the nation to permanently guarantee paid sick leave to workers during future emergencies.

"We weren't the first city to do an emergency version of this, [but] I'm not aware of any that have made it permanent to anticipate future emergencies. We may be the first on that," Wright said.