California health officers fear special COVID sick leave expiring at the worst time

Supplemental paid COVID-19 sick leave is set to expire Thursday, which could leave hundreds of thousands of California workers facing a difficult choice if they get sick with the virus. 

Many workers do not have enough paid leave to cover illness or the 10–14-day quarantine period. Health officers fear the special COVID sick leave is expiring at the worst time in this pandemic, forcing workers to choose between going to work sick or staying home under quarantine without pay.

On Tuesday, a coalition of groups including the California Work and Family Coalition, California Labor Federation and groups representing officers from 21 public health departments held an online meeting urging state lawmakers and Governor Gavin Newsom to take action.

"We are calling on our elected officials to extend California's Covid19 supplemental paid sick leave for the duration of the pandemic to protect California's families," said Marley Williams, a spokeswoman for the Public Health Alliance which is joining with other groups to call for an extension.

"Together our members have a statutory responsibility for the health of nearly 80% of California's population," said Williams.

"When we have fear of job loss and economic instability that causes people to return to work even during the infectious period," said Dr. Curtis Chan, Deputy Health Officer in San Mateo County.

"It's a good idea to extend another 6 months or so while the virus circulates," said Chan, noting that the paid leave expires just as cold weather, students returning to in-person classes, and the increase in transmission with the delta variant could increase the number of COVID cases in the coming months.

Ashlee Griffin, a San Jose State graduate student in public health says she knows firsthand the importance of the supplemental COVID paid leave.

Griffin was fully vaccinated last February, but tested positive for COVID-19 in July.

"I was cooking some chili, like sautéing onions and I couldn't smell it, but my fiancé definitely could," said Griffin who said her test came back positive several days later.

Griffin was working at a part-time job and was worried about how she would pay the bills if she had to take weeks off without pay.

"I knew I didn't have any sick hours available," said Griffin.

Thanks to California's SB95 sick leave law though, Griffin received supplemental paid COVID sick leave allowing her to stay home to recover and quarantine.

State lawmakers have not passed an extension for SB95 which expires Thursday. 

"The lack of paid sick leave has been a long-standing problem for service sector workers," said Kristen Harknett, a UCSF professor of sociology who is studying the impact of paid leave and the pandemic on the workforce with another researcher a Harvard University. Their data has found that paid leave plays a critical role in workplace health and safety.

"Half of these workers have no paid sick leave whatsoever," said Harknett, "It's very problematic if frontline workers who come into contact with many customers every day during their shift don't have the ability to stay home when they're sick."

"We're put in the position if we're worker without two weeks of paid sick leave of having to go against public health guidance and put other people at risk or risk losing our job and that's just not a position that anyone should be put in," said Harknett.

Health officials and the California Labor Federation say two possible solutions include state lawmakers convening for a special session to extend the paid leave. Another possible path would be for Governor Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order extending the paid leave until the next legislative session in January.

Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Jana at and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or