L.A. Sick Days Victory Packs Equity Punch

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Yesterday, Los Angeles became the latest city to pass a paid sick days law, joining more than two dozen other jurisdictions across the country that enable workers to earn a minimum number of paid sick days per year. Every such win is a critical step forward for working families, but L.A.’s victory is especially important because of scale and scope. L.A. is the second-largest city in the U.S. and home to the most low-wage workers. Further, the new law offers the most expansive definition of what constitutes a family of any paid sick days law in the country. It will also reduce racial inequities in access to paid sick time. For example, 60 percent of Latino workers lack access. Finally, by bringing enforcement to the local level, it may increase the odds that workers will get their due. 

With L.A.’s new labor standard, workers in the city will be able to earn twice the number of sick days as currently required under the state law—up to six days, or more if the employer chooses.

It’s an important step forward for Angelenos. That’s because, behind the looming Hollywood sign, L.A. is home to thousands of workers earning barely enough to put food on the table. For these workers, losing a day’s pay to take a child to the doctor might mean missing a rent payment or skipping a utility bill. And too often, workers who return from taking a day to recover from the flu may be told to go back home—because they’ve lost their job. 

Prior to passage of California’s Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act (AB 1522) in 2014, a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that more than half of L.A. workers lacked access to paid sick time, with pronounced racial and ethnic disparities. Access was startlingly low for certain groups, including Latino workers (60 percent lacked access); part-time workers (80 percent lacked access); and full-time workers earning less than $15,000 per year (76 percent lacked access). Yet, L.A. is nearly 50 percent Latino and its workers have lower median earnings than their counterparts in other major cities.

When AB 1522 passed in 2014, the vast majority of these workers gained access to sick days—but only three days per year. Even though this was progress, it was far below the number of days typically guaranteed for workers in other paid sick days laws, and insufficient to offer the insurance that most workers need when they must recover from a more serious illness (the CDC says that flu can be contagious for five to seven days after flu symptoms emerge) or to care for sick family members. Now, with L.A.’s new law, these workers will have decent coverage for themselves and their loved ones.

Being able to care for family members is an important aspect of sick days laws—almost all of us have people in our lives that we support, and sooner or later we’ll need to take some time to help them recover from illness or visit a healthcare provider. While most sick days laws allow workers to care for their family members, today’s definition of family is constantly shifting, and traditional language may limit workers’ ability to care for their loved ones. L.A.’s new law defines family members as those related to the worker either by “blood or affinity” —which means that caring for your chosen family is valued just as much as caring for your biological family. It’s an especially important provision for many members of the LGBTQ community, and by adopting this language, L.A. leads the nation in taking up a contemporary and progressive vision of the family.

L.A.’s law will also help to ensure effective enforcement of sick days—an especially important goal in a city that has been called the wage theft capital of the country. At present, the state is stretched thin in its efforts to enforce AB 1522. But the city is currently setting up a strong Labor Standards Bureau to enforce its minimum wage and wage theft laws—and this office will take up sick days enforcement, too. In several other major cities, local enforcement is making labor standards more meaningful for the workers they are meant to protect, and chances look good that L.A. will join them.

The L.A. City Council should be commended for adopting a strong law that will make its historic minimum wage law even more meaningful; when workers don’t risk losing their jobs or their wage to take a sick day, they truly reap the benefits of $15 per hour. But as with all labor standards, advocates and policymakers must keep up the fight, even after passage—a law on paper is only as good as the mechanisms that ensure its enforcement.