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An employee at La Copa Loca Gelato rings up a customer at the shop in San Francisco on July 30, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

California COVID Sick Pay Has Expired. But if You Work in San Francisco, You Still Have Options — Until Feb. 28

California COVID Sick Pay Has Expired. But if You Work in San Francisco, You Still Have Options — Until Feb. 28

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California's COVID sick pay policy has expired, as of Jan. 1, 2023, and California employers can no longer accept any new claims for COVID paid leave.

There's one exception to this: If you work in San Francisco, you might still be eligible for paid COVID sick leave — but only until Feb. 28.

That's thanks to San Francisco's Public Health Emergency Leave Ordinance, passed recently by voters. As of Oct. 1, 2022, San Francisco's Public Health Emergency Leave (PHEL) offers employees who work for certain San Francisco employers up to 80 hours of paid leave for COVID-related reasons. But now that San Francisco has announced that its public health emergency will end on Feb. 28, you'll only be able to claim this COVID sick pay through the end of this month.

Keep reading to find out who is eligible for San Francisco's COVID sick pay, what you can use it for and how to push back against an employer who's denying you COVID sick pay.

Jump straight to:

Who can claim San Francisco's Public Health Emergency Leave (PHEL)?

You can claim PHEL for reasons related to COVID if:

  • You work for a San Francisco employer that has 100 or more staff. This number can include employees that work outside of San Francisco, including abroad.
  • You were hired by that employer before Oct. 1, 2022, when San Francisco's Public Health Emergency Leave Ordinance came into law.

If you were hired after Oct. 1, you are unable to claim PHEL for COVID.

You can claim PHEL if you work for a San Francisco employer even if you don't live in San Francisco yourself.

You can access this San Francisco COVID sick leave regardless of your immigration or documentation status. The San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE) makes clear that they will process your claim "without regard to the Employee’s immigration status" (PDF), and that you will not be questioned about your immigration status either.

Remember, once San Francisco's Public Health Emergency declaration for COVID expires on Feb. 28, the city's Public Health Leave Ordinance — the law that made COVID-related PHEL possible — still remains in place (PDF). It means that if the state or San Francisco declares another public health emergency for another contagious disease, like it did for COVID back in 2020, and for mpox in 2022, eligible San Francisco employees can once again access PHEL when they are "unable to work or telework due to public health guidelines, symptoms or diagnosis, among other related reasons," confirms Mawuli Tugbenyoh, deputy director of policy and external affairs for San Francisco's Department of Human Resources.

The Public Health Leave Ordinance can also be applied to an air quality emergency in certain circumstances (PDF).

What are the reasons I can claim this paid COVID sick leave in San Francisco?

You can claim PHEL for COVID through Feb. 28 if you meet the criteria above, and if you can't work (or telework from home) for reasons including:

  • You've tested positive for COVID.
  • You have symptoms of COVID and are seeking a diagnosis.
  • You've been advised by a health care provider to isolate or quarantine after a COVID exposure.

You can also claim PHEL to take time off work to care for a family member who:

  • Has tested positive for COVID.
  • Has been exposed to COVID and advised to isolate.
  • Cannot attend school or their child care facility because of COVID-related closures.
  • Cannot be cared for by their usual care provider because of COVID.

How much COVID sick pay does PHEL offer?

Through Feb. 28, PHEL offers eligible full-time employees up to 80 hours of paid leave for COVID-related reasons — equivalent to up to two weeks off work.

What if you're part-time, or your weekly hours vary?

In that case, the amount of PHEL hours you can take for COVID-related reasons will be pro-rated by your employer, and calculated based on the average number of hours you've worked over a two-week period.

What if you didn't know you were entitled to claim PHEL after California's COVID Supplemental Sick Pay Leave policy expired on Jan. 1, and instead took PTO for one of those valid reasons above (for example, you tested positive for COVID and were unable to work)?

Unlike with the state's own COVID sick pay law, which specifically stated that employees could claim back any PTO that should have been taken as COVID sick pay instead, this issue seems to be more of a gray area when it comes to PHEL. Speak to your boss or your HR department, if you have one, to see what's possible.

When is San Francisco's COVID sick leave policy expiring?

San Francisco's paid COVID leave law is only in place while the city's COVID Public Health Emergency Declaration is in place. And on Thursday, the San Francisco Department of Public Health announced that the city would end its Public Health Emergency Declaration on Feb. 28.

This means that starting March 1, even if you're eligible, you won't be able to claim PHEL for COVID from your employer.

San Francisco will end its COVID emergency status on the same day that Gov. Gavin Newsom will end California's statewide state of emergency. The White House has announced that the federal states of emergency will end a little later, on May 11. Read more about what the end of California's state of emergency means for you.

Who counts as my 'family member' for claiming PHEL?

You can claim PHEL for several reasons related to a family member's circumstances.

The city's definitions of "family member" include not just biological relationships, but also relationships "resulting from adoption, step relationships, and foster care relationships." As far as PHEL is concerned, San Francisco considers that a "family member" can be:

  • Your child (including a child of your domestic partner and/or a child for whom you stand in loco parentis)
  • Your parent (includes a person who stood in loco parentis for you when you were a minor)
  • The parent or guardian of your spouse or registered domestic partner
  • Your legal guardian
  • Your legal ward
  • Your sibling
  • Your grandparent
  • Your grandchild
  • Your spouse
  • Your registered domestic partner under any state or local law

Your "designated person" can also count as your family member for claiming PHEL. What this means: If you don't have a spouse or registered domestic partner, you can designate one person that you want to use your paid sick leave to care for. The big caveat: You have to select your designated person before you claim PHEL to care for them, and only have the opportunity to choose a designated person on an annual basis. Speak with your boss or your HR department, if you have one, about selecting a designated person.

A stack of BinaxNow COVID-19 at-home test kits. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Is this related to California's 'exclusion pay'?

No, San Francisco's Public Health Emergency Leave is different from California's previous exclusion pay policy that was mandated by Cal/OSHA.

Those Cal/OSHA regulations related specifically to COVID-positive workers who present an in-person infection risk to their colleagues and required businesses to "exclude" employees who tested positive for COVID-19 or who'd been exposed to a positive case at work. But like California's own Supplemental Paid Sick Leave policy, that law also has expired as of Jan. 1, 2023.

Can I claim San Francisco's COVID sick leave if I work from home?

Yes. San Francisco's Public Health Emergency Leave applies through Feb. 28 to everyone who tests positive for COVID, and works for a San Francisco business that employs 100 or more people — regardless of whether they work from home or in an in-person setting. The San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement specifically mentions telework (PDF) (i.e., work from home, or remote work) in the Public Health Emergency Leave Ordinance.

The paid leave is intended to grant you time off work to recover from your COVID infection, no matter where you do that work.

A pink and white at-home COVID-19 test against a dark background.
An at-home COVID-19 test, which can be used as proof of eligibility for California's COVID sick leave. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

I spoke to my employer and they're giving me a hard time. What should I do?

Always communicate through writing ...

Make sure that when you reach out to your employer to ask for sick leave, you make the request in writing; that can include email or a text message.

You can also ask for these hours via a verbal conversation with your boss, but be aware: That could make it harder for you to get compensated if your employer later says they don’t remember approving those hours or that you don’t qualify.

If your boss is telling you to use up your regular sick leave first ...

Veronica Chavez, interim workers' rights directing attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza, a legal services nonprofit in Oakland, says she's seen businesses tell their workers who caught COVID outside of work to first use up their regular sick leave before touching their COVID sick pay — which "should not be the case," she said.

San Francisco's Public Health Emergency Leave is specifically designed to apply to time off needed because of COVID, as this disease is the reason for the city's Public Health Emergency Declaration that prompted the Public Health Emergency Leave Ordinance.

If your employer insists you don't need to use COVID sick pay because you work from home ...

Even if your human resources department isn't outright denying you COVID sick leave, unfortunately you may find that you're being discouraged one way or another from claiming it — especially if you work from home.

You could find your employer pressuring you to keep "working through" your COVID infection at home, or to otherwise limit the amount of days you claim as paid COVID sick leave.

If this happens, remind your employer of the city-mandated COVID sick leave laws that entitle you to up to 80 hours of sick pay, and that you’ll be accessing this paid leave for as long as you are unable to work because you're recovering from COVID. You may find it helpful to remind your employer of this posting from the San Francisco Officer of Labor Standards Enforcement, which makes clear who is eligible for Public Health Emergency Leave (PDF).

Remember, unless you work in a health care setting, it's unlikely your employer or their HR department are themselves medical professionals, and they're not privy to your medical history or risk level. Therefore, the amount of time your employer thinks you "should" claim as COVID sick leave — or comparing it to the amount of time other employees have taken to recover from COVID — is irrelevant here. If you need advice, and have access to health care, consult your doctor on how long you should stay off work because you have COVID.

If your employer says their business is too small for you to claim COVID sick leave ...

Although Public Health Emergency Leave is available only to employees who work for a San Francisco employer with 100 or more staff, not all of those employees have to be in San Francisco — or even within the United States.

If your boss says you're otherwise not eligible to claim COVID sick leave ...

If your employer denies your request on the grounds that they don’t know what you’re talking about, or that you don’t qualify when you believe you do, make your request again but this time include this posting from the San Francisco Officer of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE), which makes clear who is eligible for Public Health Emergency Leave (PDF).

If your boss or your human resources department is still pushing back even after you shared the posting, OLSE says that you can contact them directly:

You can also find resources and fact sheets about your labor rights on OLSE's website, sfgov.org/olse.

Remember, OLSE says that if you assert your right to receive public health emergency leave, you're protected from retaliation. The agency also reminds employers that the city can investigate possible violations and get access to employer records. OLSE also can enforce these public health emergency leave requirements "by ordering reinstatement of employees, payment of paid leave unlawfully withheld, and payment of penalties."

If you're worried about pushing back against your employer ...

Chavez, attorney with Centro Legal de la Raza, understands that some workers may feel nervous about having these complicated conversations, especially if they fear that their employer will retaliate against them by cutting their wages or hours, or firing them.

“There are laws that protect (workers) against retaliation,” she said. “So if that were to occur — whether a person is undocumented, a U.S. citizen, or anything else — a person can file a retaliation complaint.” You can file a complaint with the Labor Commissioner’s Office online, by calling (714) 558-4913 or emailing osharetaliation@dir.ca.gov.

Remember, San Francisco's Office of Labor Standards Enforcement also says that if you assert your right to receive Public Health Emergency Leave, you're protected from retaliation. The agency also reminds employers that the city can investigate possible violations and get access to employer records. OLSE also can enforce these public health emergency leave requirements "by ordering reinstatement of employees, payment of paid leave unlawfully withheld, and payment of penalties."

If you're still hesitant about filing a formal complaint when your employer refuses to accommodate your sick leave request or if you haven't heard back from the Labor Commissioner's Office, you have other options.

There have been a few instances where Chavez and her office have helped workers secure COVID sick leave by writing a letter to the employer. "Turn to attorneys or someone who's willing to assist with a letter where they can put it in language from the law that states very clearly what the employer is required to do," she said.

Here are some organizations that offer free legal aid to workers in the Bay Area:

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A version of this story was originally published on Jan. 18, 2022.

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