California Orders Paid Sick Leave for Food-Chain Workers Stricken by Virus

The state hopes two weeks of paid leave will keep sick workers home and avoid outbreaks like the one in a South Dakota meatpacking plant that sickened at least 640.

Farmworkers weed wine-grape plants. (Jackie Johnston / The Associated Press)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California will hope to ensure the reliability of its food supply by offering workers up and down the food chain two weeks of paid leave if they fall ill or receive quarantine orders, Governor Gavin Newsom announced Thursday. 

The move comes in response to news that several aspects of the food-supply chain have proven particularly vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, from grocery store workers contracting the illness or workers in meatpacking plants testing positive. 

“I think about the people that grow our food, pick our food people, pack our food, deliver our food, cook, serve and sell our food, Newsom said. “The sector is essential to our capacity to meet our basic needs during this pandemic.”

The paid leave is important because in some cases outbreaks at plants or stores were caused by people with coronavirus symptoms going to work for fear of missing out on much-needed paychecks. 

Case in point, a meatpacking plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, became the number one hot spot for the coronavirus in all of America. The Smithfield pork processing plant has seen more than 640 employees contract the virus, accounting for more than 44% of the confirmed cases in the entire state.

Union leaders at the plant said a lack of health and safety provisions made the plant ripe for an outbreak, while the lack of paid leave forced sick people to come to work despite symptoms consistent with the novel coronavirus. 

Newsom said California’s plan was crafted to avoid such a scenario. 

“We don’t want you going to work if you are sick,” the governor said. “And we want to make sure that you know if you’re sick, it’s OK to acknowledge it and it’s OK to let your employer know, and still know that you’re going to get a supplemental paycheck for a minimum of two weeks.”

So far, California’s food supply network has been largely spared from the ravages of the disease, although the Safeway supermarket chain did report the death of an employee at a distribution center in Central Valley city of Tracy. 

The measure is aimed at protecting workers in plants and distribution centers as well as those who toil in California’s formidable agricultural industry. 

Newsom also revealed he spent the morning on the phone with President Donald Trump and other members of the federal pandemic task force to discuss guidelines for reopening the American economy. 

“I do want to express in broad strokes appreciation for what the president is doing,” Newsom said. 

He said Trump understands the need to tailor reopening in response to conditions on the ground in each section of the nation and of California. Some counties, like Los Angeles and Santa Clara, continue to have significant outbreaks while others — particularly rural counties — have seen few cases. 

The discussion comes after Newsom stipulated six metrics to be met before California can consider easing its shelter-in-place provisions that began last month. 

One of the most important elements of a phased reopening is the ability for the state to execute massive testing. Early in the outbreak, Newsom said his goal was to ramp up testing capacity to about 25,000 per day. 

In the last 24 hours, the governor said California tested about 18,800 people.

“We still need to broaden our testing capacity,” Newsom said. 

California has been beset by both bad news and good news in recent days. The state saw a daily death toll record at 69 between Wednesday and Thursday, according to Newsom. 

However, the state also saw a modest decrease in the number of virus-related deaths during the same 24-hour period. It was the first time hospitalizations decreased — rather than just a decrease in rate of hospitalizations — since the pandemic began in late February. 

“It’s one data point and not a trend,” Newsom said, though he added ICU numbers are cause for cautious optimism. 

In Los Angeles County, the daily death toll broke Wednesday’s record with 55 new deaths. The county’s death toll now stands at 455, 35% of which involved people from skilled nursing homes and assisted living facilities according to county health officials.

Since the beginning of the week, the daily updates provided by the LA County Public Health Department have shown a steady rise in the death toll, while the number of confirmed Covid-19 infections has begun to level off. Officials said there has been a delay in reports of infections and deaths throughout the pandemic and not just in LA County.

LA County has seen 10,854 confirmed coronavirus cases. Currently, 1,587 infected people are hospitalized.

“Every day we’re getting closer to being able to see a time when more people will be able to go back to work and there will be more places open,” said Ferrer. “We’ll never be able to go back to the way it was before Covid-19 but we are moving to being on the other side of this pandemic.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, LA County Jails have released over 4,200 nonviolent inmates — roughly a quarter of the jail population — to reduce the spread of infection. So far the jails have seen 71 coronavirus cases involving 15 inmates and 56 staff.

The toll on the county will also be economic. Officials project a $1 billion decline in sales tax revenue this year due to business closures. By next year, the decline could reach $2 billion according to county estimates released this week that mirror projections by the city of Los Angeles.

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said on Thursday it’s “premature” to discuss layoffs or pay cuts for any county department. When asked by a reporter during the daily briefing if any county managers or officials making six-figure salaries would take a pay cut, she did not answer.

“To answer a question on whether I’m going to require department heads or even people making X amount of dollars to take a pay cut is premature and pretty irresponsible quite frankly,” said Barger.

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