Employment Law Bulletin | February 17, 2021

Sonoma County Revives, Expands and Extends COVID-19 Paid Sick Leave Ordinance for Employees Working in the County’s Unincorporated Areas

Following the City of Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted to revive its August 2020 ordinance that required COVID-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave (SPSL), while also expanding its reach.  The new Ordinance represents the County’s effort to fill the gap left by the expiration of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and to reach employers not covered by the prior ordinance, i.e., those with fewer than 500 employees.

Effective February 9, 2021, the Sonoma County Urgency Ordinance (Ordinance) requires all employers, regardless of size or sector, who operate within the County’s unincorporated areas to provide up to two weeks of SPSL for employees through June 30, 2021.  Other pertinent details of the new Ordinance are provided below.

Eligible Employees: Employees are eligible for SPSL if they 1) work two or more hours within the geographic boundaries of unincorporated Sonoma County; 2) make a written request for time off (including email or text); and 3) are unable to work (remote workers are not eligible) for one of the following reasons:

    1. The employee has been advised by a health care provider to isolate or self-quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19;
    2. The employee is subject to quarantine or isolation by federal, state or local order due to COVID-19;
    3. The employee is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking a medical diagnosis;
    4. The employee needs to care for an individual who is subject to a federal, state, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19, or has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine related to COVID-19, or is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking a medical diagnosis; or
    5. The employee takes time off work because the employee needs to provide care for an individual whose senior care provider or whose school or childcare provider is closed or is unavailable in response to a public health or other public official’s recommendation.*

*Although the Ordinance itself makes no mention of a small employer exemption, the County’s notice (provided below) recognizes a possible exemption for employers of 50 or less who would experience financial hardship in providing the leave for reason #5, above.  It is unclear whether the County intended to provide for a small employer exemption for this purpose, but the County’s reliance in other respects on the FFCRA (where the exemption also appears) would indicate that a small employer might be able to deny a leave on this basis.

Limited Exception for Health Care Providers and Emergency Responders:  Employers of healthcare and emergency responders may deny leave to employees who need it to care for an individual whose senior care provider, school, or childcare provider is closed or unavailable due to COVID-19, if the employer can make a good-faith determination that granting leave would create a staffing shortfall and operational needs would require a denial of all or some of the requested leave.

Documentation and Replacement:  Employers may require employees to identify the basis for requesting leave under the Ordinance, but cannot require employees to furnish a doctor’s note or other supporting documentation.  Employers are also prohibited from requiring employees to find or confirm a replacement as a condition of obtaining leave under the Ordinance.

Previously Provided Paid Leave:  Like the new Santa Rosa Temporary Paid Sick Leave Ordinance, the revised 2021 Sonoma County Ordinance does not reset or replenish an employee’s COVID-related paid sick leave bank.  Any COVID-related paid sick leave taken in 2020 or 2021, prior to the passing of the Ordinance, that was in addition to state required paid sick leave may be credited towards the 2021 SPSL requirement.

Pay Amount:  As under the prior ordinance, employees must be paid at their regular rate of pay up to $511 per day, not to exceed $5,110.

Notice:  Written notice of the rights afforded by the 2021 Ordinance is required to be given in a manner calculated to reach all employees, including posting a notice in English and Spanish in the workplace, on any intranet or app-based platform and/or via email.  Employers must also maintain a record of each employee’s name, the hours worked, and pay rate for at least a three-year period.

The County has created a flyer to assist employers with complying with this notice requirement, which can be found here: https://sonoma-county.legistar.com/View.ashx?M=F&ID=9158148&GUID=98D72E31-C47E-4584-B691-51548909518C.

No Retaliation:  The Ordinance prohibits employers from engaging in retaliation against employees for requesting or taking SPSL or for seeking to enforce the rights afforded under the Ordinance.  Employees who believe their rights have been violated may file an action in court and may seek reinstatement, back pay, and/or other legal or equitable relief. Prevailing employees are entitled to recover attorney’s fees and costs.

Employers covered under this new Ordinance should act quickly to determine employee eligibility and available paid sick leave amounts, as well as post the appropriate notices.  If you have questions or need help navigating the new 2021 Sonoma County Ordinance, please contact an SMT employment law attorney at info@www.smlaw.com.

Kari Brown

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SMT’s employment attorneys can provide your company with employment policies, forms and employee disciplinary documentation in Spanish. Providing such important information to employees in the language they understand is critical to employee performance, providing a welcoming diverse work environment, and protecting your company against employment claims. Contact an SMT attorney today to get started.

Spaulding McCullough & Tansil LLP
Employment Law Group

Jan Gabrielson Tansil  | Lisa Ann Hilario | Kari Brown

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