The 2022 COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave says that in workplaces with 26 or more employees, workers are eligible for up to 80 hours of leave if they have to take time off of work due to COVID-19. Credit: Heidi De Marco / Vida en el Valle

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The central San Joaquin Valley’s top labor organizations say they want to see stricter enforcement of the COVID-19 paid sick leave law and other labor regulations.

Worker advocates also say they want to see better outreach about labor rights to rural farmworkers, as well as people who don’t speak English or Spanish, such as those who speak Punjabi, Hmong and Indigenous languages. Some say that few of the Central Valley’s rural workers even know they are entitled to retroactive COVID-19 paid sick leave.

“Our experience is that none of them (rural farmworkers) know about it,” Perfecto Muñoz of the West Modesto Collaborative said during a Tuesday meeting in Fresno with California labor agency officials. “Somebody has to enforce (the law).”

​As part of the COVID-19 Workplace Outreach Project Worker Week of Action, labor groups — including representatives from Central Valley organizations such as Valley Voices, United Farm Workers, Jakara Movement, California Rural Legal Assistance, Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena and others — told state officials that many of the region’s low-wage workers are not receiving COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave. They also said that they wanted to see strengthened enforcement of farmworker overtime pay and wage violations, as well as heat and smoke regulations.

The 2022 COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave was signed into law on Feb. 9. The law says that in workplaces with 26 or more employees, workers are eligible for up to 80 hours of leave if they have to take time off of work due to COVID-19. This is in addition to leave provided under previous laws, which expired on Sept. 30.

Advocates say they want to see better enforcement of labor laws

Navdeep Kaur, who leads labor rights work with Jakara Movement, asked state labor leaders how they are holding employers accountable in paying the supplemental paid sick leave.

“In the past week, a handful of workers called me regarding how to get (supplemental paid sick leave),” said Kaur.

In response,Patty Chitay, deputy labor commissioner with the California Labor Commissioner’s office, said her office is educating employers on their obligation to providepaid sick leave due to COVID-19. The office’s wage claim unit is also prioritizing and expediting claims that have supplemental sick pay issues with the goal of resolving these claims within 30 days or less, Chitay said.

Still, labor advocates said they need more tools to help farmworkers know their rights.

“These individuals that we work with … live in remote communities,” said Muñoz of the West Modesto Collaborative. “They feel very isolated in the fear that ‘if I say anything, speak anything, I’m out of a job.’”

The labor commissioner’s office has a retaliation unit in case employees are fired, demoted, see a reduction in pay or hours, or experience any other kind of retaliation when asking for COVID-19 sick pay. Employers can face up to $10,000 in penalties if they retaliate against workers asking for COVID-19 sick pay.

“We’re really trying to be proactive” by dedicating more resources to supplemental paid leave claims, said Sebastian Sanchez, associate secretary for farmworker liaison and immigrant services with the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

State labor agency leaders said they are trying “creative ways” to contact hard-to-reach communities, such as collaborating with community-based organizations, as well as with the California Department of Public Health’s occupational health branch, to put out radio and social media advertisements. They also said they are increasing the number of Spanish-speaking staff, translating more resources into multiple languages and engaging with Indigenous language translation services.

“But,” said Sanchez, “we know we’re not going to reach everyone.”

Sanchez said the labor commissioner’s office also has a “rapid response” pilot program, through which they reach out to employers “as a good faith effort.”

The office tells employers, “look, your worker has a right to paid sick leave. Do you really want to go through this process?” said Sanchez. “That has actually helped us resolve a lot of claims.”

Officials from Cal/OSHA said that as of Jan. 31, 2022, there had been 1,243 COVID-19 related violations issued by the state. Employers can be fined up to $100,000 for Cal/OSHA violations, said Brandon Hart, program manager for communications and strategic planning for Cal/OSHA.

“Our overriding objective through the citation process is to bring employers into compliance with our regulations,” he said.

Do you qualify for COVID-19 paid sick leave?

Under the 2022 COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave law, employees can receive up to 40 hours if they need to quarantine or isolate because of COVID-19, have been advised by a healthcare provider to quarantine due to COVID-19, or areexperiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking a medical diagnosis.

Workers are also eligible if they care for a family memberwith COVID-19, such as a child who has to quarantine. Employees can also use COVID-19 sick pay for time taken to get the COVID-19 vaccine, including if they need to take time off of work because of vaccine-related side effects. Employees can also receive up to 40 hours ofCOVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave if they or a family member they care for tested positive for COVID-19.

Workers that were not paid for the sick leave they took previously can still file wage claims retroactive to January 1. To file a claim,workers should keep track of hours and pay stubs that document all related communication with their employers.

Workers who think they might be eligible for paid sick leave canuse the state’s COVID-19 worker benefits and leave navigator and take a quick assessment to determine eligibility.

Workers can also call 833-LCO-INFO, or 833-526-4636, for any questions on paid sick leave, retaliation protections, filing a wage claim, or retaliation complaint.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.