An at-home COVID-19 test, Feb. 3, 2022. Beth LaBerge/KQED
An at-home COVID-19 test, Feb. 3, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

COVID Sick Pay in California: How to Claim This New Paid Leave

COVID Sick Pay in California: How to Claim This New Paid Leave

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This story was updated 4:40 p.m. July 27 to reflect that San Francisco no longer offers its Right to Recover scheme.

You can find the Supplemental Paid Sick Leave posting from the California Labor Commissioner in English here and in Spanish here.

If you work in California and get infected with COVID, you may be able to claim up to 80 hours of paid leave.

Thanks to a deal approved by California lawmakers and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Feb. 8, paid leave is available for reasons related to a COVID infection. According to a California Budget and Policy Center analysis of census data, the number of Californians who were not working in the previous 30-day period because they or a family member had COVID was up by 320%.

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

Skip straight to:

Who can access this new COVID sick leave?

Starting Saturday, Feb. 19, you can claim paid COVID sick leave if you work in California for an employer of 26 or more people.

You can claim paid COVID sick leave for one or more of the following reasons:

  • You have COVID
  • A family member has COVID and you need to care for them
  • You need to attend a vaccination appointment (includes boosters)
  • You need to recover from getting vaccinated (includes boosters)
  • You need to take care of a family member who needs to get a vaccination, or recover from a vaccination or booster
  • You need to take care of a child who cannot attend school because of virus-related closures or quarantines

You can access this COVID sick leave regardless of your immigration or documentation status. If you anticipate entering any future immigration process — such as applying for a green card — claiming COVID sick leave does not make you a public charge.

(If this all sounds pretty straightforward so far … hold up. It’s going to get slightly more complicated than California’s COVID sick leave last year.)

Is this the same as California’s "exclusion pay"?

No, this is a different type of paid leave. California exclusion pay is mandated by Cal/OSHA, and relates specifically to COVID-positive workers who present an in-person infection risk to their colleagues.

State regulations require businesses to "exclude" employees who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and others who’ve been in close contact with positive cases at work until they are no longer an infection risk.

If your employer asks you to take time off because a potential workplace COVID-19 exposure, they have to pay you for the days you won't be working. Last April, officials extended the state's exclusion pay law through the end of 2022.

What are other ways exclusion pay is different? Unlike the state's COVID sick pay, exclusion pay applies only when the potential COVID exposure happens at your workplace. Also, the Cal/OSHA rule applies in almost every workplace in the state, including offices, factories and retail businesses — but COVID sick pay applies only to companies that employ 26 or more people. Read more information about exclusion pay.

If you believe you got COVID-19 at your workplace, then you can file for workers' comp, which can cover the costs of medical care, lost income while you’re out sick and even transportation expenses. Learn how the workers' comp process works.

Can I claim COVID sick leave if I work from home?

Yes: this COVID sick leave applies to everyone who tests positive for COVID, and works for a business that employs 26 or more people — regardless of whether they work from home or an in-person setting.

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

Remember, COVID sick pay also covers a number of other situations that aren't about getting COVID yourself, like needing time off to get vaccinated for coronavirus, or caring for a family member with COVID. These situations all qualify for sick pay, regardless if you work in an in-person setting or work from home. Read more about the reasons you can claim COVID sick pay.

How does the new paid COVID sick leave work?

Like the 2021 version of California’s COVID sick leave laws, the 2022 bill allows you to claim up to 80 hours of paid sick leave for COVID-related reasons.

Unlike the 2021 version, this new bill splits those hours into two types (or "banks") of up to 40 hours each — and which bank you draw from will depend on why you’re claiming these hours.

Bank A: The more flexible option, offering up to 40 hours

This bank is more flexible, because you can use these 40 hours for a wide range of COVID-related reasons, like:

  • You have COVID
  • A family member has COVID and you need to care for them
  • You need to attend a vaccination appointment (includes boosters)
  • You need to recover from getting vaccinated (includes boosters)
  • You need to take care of a family member who needs to get a vaccination, or recover from a vaccination or booster
  • You need to take care of a child who cannot attend school because of virus-related closures or quarantines

Steve Smith, communications director at the California Labor Federation, said it’s helpful to think of Bank A as the one that’s "pretty broad in terms of how applicable it is to many different situations that would cause workers to miss work as a result of COVID."

One important thing to note about using Bank A to claim hours for you or a family member to get a COVID vaccine or a booster, or recover from getting a vaccine or a booster: For each vaccine or booster, your employer can limit the number of hours you can claim to 24 working hours (or three days). To claim more leave in this situation, you’ll need a note from a health care provider that verifies that you or the family member is continuing to experience symptoms related to the vaccine or booster.

Bank B: The less flexible option also offering up to 40 hours

The other type of paid COVID sick leave — Bank B — is more restrictive, as these hours can only be accessed when you or a loved one has COVID.

In order to draw hours from Bank B, you will need to prove to your employer that you or someone in your family has tested positive, by submitting proof of that positive test result.

Think of Bank A and Bank B as two separate doors that allow you to access paid COVID sick leave — except that you need a key (a positive test result for COVID) to open the Bank B door.

Do I need to use up all my paid sick leave from Bank A before drawing from Bank B?

No — you can draw from either bank at any time, depending on the reason for needing it. "You can use both banks in the same week potentially," confirms Smith.

If you’re wondering how a person could variously draw from Bank A and Bank B in the space of a few months, The Los Angeles Times's guide to COVID sick leave has this helpful example:

A full-time worker tests positive for COVID-19 in March. The worker takes three days, or 24 hours, of time off to recover and submits a positive test to their employer, which allows the employee to take this sick leave from Bank B.

A few weeks later, the worker’s daughter needs to go to a vaccine appointment. The worker uses one day, or eight hours, from Bank A to take the child to the appointment and another eight hours the next day, also from Bank A, to care for the child, who wakes up with flu-like symptoms.

In June, the worker’s father catches COVID-19. Now the worker uses their last two days from Bank B to care for their parent. The employer may require the worker to provide a positive test from the father.

After two days, the worker’s father is still really sick. The worker has three days, or 24 hours, of Bank A left to care for their parent.

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)

How should I request COVID-19 sick leave from my boss starting on Feb. 19?

Before you talk to your employer about COVID-19 sick leave, know which bank you’ll be drawing hours from and make sure that you’re choosing the right one for your situation. Remember, each bank can be accessed only in specific circumstances.

Veronica Chavez, interim workers' rights directing attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza, a legal services nonprofit in Oakland, offers a list of several things a worker should have in mind when deciding which bank to draw from.

If you’re taking time off because you tested positive on a COVID test, it’s possible (and lawful) for your employer to request that proof of your positive result. You should decide ahead of time how you can show your employer your results — even if you used a home test kit — and think about making it as straightforward as possible for them. "[Be] aware of what sort of request you're making," Chavez said. "What information might the employer need that would assist them in more readily approving the process?"

Remember that you don’t need to exhaust one bank of hours before withdrawing from the other. So if you have previously taken some hours from Bank A, you can still access Bank B if you need to, even if you still have hours left in Bank A. "There is no order for these banks," Chavez explained. "A person has both of these available."

If you’re planning to request hours from both banks — let’s say you’re going to get vaccinated and you also need to take some time to care for a loved one who’s tested positive— you should keep a clear record of how many hours you’ll need, and on what days you’ll be using these hours.

Chavez recommends "having the request in writing," which could look like an 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.

Can I claim this new COVID sick leave retroactively?

Yes. If you took paid time off or sick leave for COVID-related reasons any time on or after Jan. 1, 2022, you can claim those hours back from your employer starting Feb. 19. This also applies to any unpaid sick leave you took on or after Jan. 1, for which you can now "either get paid for that time or get credited those sick days that you used," said Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation.

Any hours you claim retroactively can be drawn from either bank. However, keep in mind that if you choose to take hours from Bank B, you may still have to verify with your employer that you or a loved one was sick with COVID when you took unpaid sick leave, and provide a positive test from that period.

What if I don't work full time?

These two banks of COVID sick leave are framed as up to 40 hours each — up to 80 hours total — because that’s the maximum amount you can claim based on a full-time work schedule. If you don’t work full time, explains Smith, "the leave is pro-rated based on how many hours a week you do work" by looking at the number of hours a week you worked over the last six months.

Related Posts

"If you work less than six months, then the equation is a little bit different," said Smith, who adds that the Department of Industrial Relations will soon release guidelines for part-time workers on accessing their COVID sick leave.

KQED will be updating this section once state officials release more information.

If I can use this COVID sick leave if a member of my family needs my care, who counts as 'my family'?

"This is one of the areas of the law that I think has the potential to be a little complicated," said Smith.

He says that a family member is "typically described as someone living in your household" — but acknowledges that those kinds of definitions have definitely become more fluid during the pandemic, as unrelated people quarantine or isolate together in the same home. Smith also uses the example of a parent who doesn’t live in your home full-time, but requires your care — either in your home or theirs — because they’ve got COVID.

"This is one of the areas that's a little bit gray, and we'll be getting more guidance from the Department of Industrial Relations soon," assures Smith. Again, we'll be updating this section once state officials release more information.

If I need to provide a positive COVID test for me or a family member to access Bank B of COVID sick leave, what kind of test is acceptable?

Smith says right now, it appears either a PCR test or an antigen test will be accepted by employers — and that at-home antigen tests are also acceptable. This includes the at-home tests you can order for free to your home from the U.S. Postal Service.

Since you can use both Bank A and Bank B of COVID sick leave if you or a family member get COVID, Smith notes that you may need to provide a second positive test to be able to access your Bank B hours if you’ve already exhausted your hours from Bank A.

"So we think it's a good rule of thumb for workers to get tested as soon as they show symptoms, and then to get tested again if they're still feeling ill heading into that second week," he said.

Who isn't able to claim COVID sick leave?

If you work for a business that has fewer than 26 employees, you can’t claim this new COVID sick leave. As CalMatters has reported, this means approximately 1 in 4 California workers are excluded.

Without access to this COVID sick leave, most workers in California are only legally entitled to up to three days of sick leave per year.

Smith also notes that the new sick leave bill leaves out workers who are "classified as independent contractors, even though they may not actually be independent in the truest sense of the word" — like gig workers.

If you’re not able to access COVID sick leave, check whether your city or county has its own program offering financial support to people losing work due to COVID. (San Francisco’s Right to Recover program, for example, offered funds to residents who tested positive for COVID and couldn't work during their recovery, but is now unavailable.)

You can also use California’s COVID-19 Worker Benefits and Leave Navigator online tool to explore your leave options during the pandemic.

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

If you need to be excluded from your workplace and your employer is telling you to use COVID sick leave ...

California requires businesses to "exclude" employees who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and others who’ve been in close contact with positive cases at work until they are no longer an infection risk. And Centro Legal de la Raza's Veronica Chavez says that the last time COVID sick leave was available in California, she saw employers telling their workers to use up their sick leave hours when they needed to be excluded from the workplace.

But Chavez explains that exclusion and COVID sick leave are two separate things. "A person should be able to get paid exclusion pay if the employer tells them to stay home because there was someone [who tested positive] at the workplace," she said. "They should still have both of their 40-hour banks intact."

However, exclusion pay applies only when the potential COVID exposure happens at your workplace — and bear in mind that an employer could still try to prove that your infection is not work-related to deny you that exclusion pay. Read more information about exclusion pay. If you believe you were infected at work, you can also request workers’ compensation.

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

Chavez says she's also 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. "For COVID-related illnesses or an exposure, a person should be able to use the supplemental [COVID] sick leave, so that the other [sick leave] is simply used for other illnesses."

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

Even if your HR 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 state-mandated COVID sick leave laws that entitles you 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 if helpful to remind your employer of  the posting from the Labor Commissioner's Office that explains who is covered by this law.

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 levels. 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 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 COVID sick leave is available only to people in California who work for an employer of 26 or more people, Chavez points out that the law doesn’t require these 26 or more workers to all be located in California.

"The law only covers employers who have 26-plus employees nationwide," she said. "It’s not just the one office [in California]." So if your company employs people in several states, it’s probably a good idea to check the total size of their workforce across the country — because that total number could be 26 or higher.

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, Chavez recommends making the request again, but this time include in your message the posting from the Labor Commissioner's Office that explains who is covered by this law.

The posting is available for download as a PDF here in English and Spanish.

"If they continue to push back even after seeing something pretty official from a state agency, I would recommend contacting an attorney," Chavez said. She notes that several legal aid clinics in the Bay Area offer assistance for free who can help you file a claim with the Labor Commissioner’s Office.

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

Chavez 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.

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:

Sponsored

Sponsored