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COVID-19 is back in California. Essential worker protections have not

The omicron variant continues its rapid spread in California, tearing vaccinated and unvaccinated populations apart and driving up hospitalizations. An unprecedented number of essential workers, including doctors and nurses, have been exposed and are falling ill from COVID-19 – more than ever before during the pandemic.

This wave of infections has once again left California hospitals in crisis. Although they are not currently facing shortages of personal protective equipment or ventilators, as they were at the start of the pandemic, hospitals are facing even more serious pressure on resources: providers of health care.

As staffing shortages rock the healthcare industry, hospitals are scrambling to fill vacancies and meet demands for staff from increasingly busy emergency departments and wards. Reminiscent of the first wave of the pandemic, frontline providers are again being urged to sign up for emergency on-call shifts and suspend family obligations in the name of patient care. But these shortages belie the fact that more healthcare providers than ever before are susceptible to infection.

More glaringly, however, omicron has exposed more clearly than ever our government’s failure to provide needed sick leave, basic support and protection to frontline health workers.

When California’s additional COVID-19 sick leave law, SB95, expired in September, many essential workers went from being protected to having insufficient paid sick leave to get through even the newly instituted five-day quarantine period. when they fell ill. With the return to pre-pandemic California law, many of the state’s essential workers now find themselves with just 24 hours of guaranteed paid sick leave a year.

This discrepancy between quarantine mandates and guaranteed sick leave creates a moral and financial dilemma for healthcare providers. They want and are meant to support our collective well-being by risking exposure to COVID-19. However, if they fall ill in the course of this work, many will have to bear the cost of lost wages individually.

As practicing emergency physicians, we have been hearing pleas for sick leave assistance from our colleagues across the state for nearly two years. Many of us spent the first few months of 2020 staying in hotels or separate rooms from loved ones simply to protect our families from infection. Throughout the pandemic, we have made countless personal sacrifices to support our communities. Today, as the pandemic spreads again, frontline workers protecting our communities are being forced to choose between their pay and their health without adequate government support.

And we are not alone.

From transportation to food service, there are reports of the ongoing effects of COVID-related labor shortages. The lack of guaranteed paid sick leave is likely to have a disproportionate effect on low-income members of our community. Not only are workers in low-wage jobs less likely to have financial reserves to draw from, they are also less likely to receive additional benefits. For example, data suggests that 60% more private sector workers in the top 10% earners have access to paid sick leave compared to the bottom 10%.

When people live paycheck to paycheck, their likelihood of being sick at work increases dramatically. In states that implemented extended paid COVD-19 sick leave through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a federal program that offered tax credits to employers, there were significant decreases in infections. compared to states that have not implemented this program.

That program, however, expired on September 30, along with California’s SB95. This expiration has reduced our guaranteed maximum sick days to the woefully insufficient status quo.

This reduction in paid sick leave not only harms individual workers, disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-income households, but it also serves to accelerate the spread of COVID-19 and strain our system of protection. health already overloaded.

UC Berkeley health policy professor William Dow spoke of the danger of this failure, telling CalMatters that “given the current COVID threat, it is premature to end additional paid sick leave.”

California State Assemblyman Evan Low has advocated for the expansion of these programs, but stand-alone sick leave legislation was not introduced until the end of the US session. last year.

Complacency and inappropriateness have left California unprepared for the realities of an all-too-predictable winter surge. And it left the state completely blindsided by a highly transmissible variant like omicron.

This lack of vision and urgency on the part of state leaders compounds the feelings of helplessness and defeat that many health care providers feel. Nearly one in five healthcare workers have already left the medical field completely during the pandemic.

The California legislature has yet to recognize the need for guaranteed paid sick leave and has yet to take immediate action.

Letting extended paid sick leave programs expire during an ongoing pandemic seemed short-sighted in September. Now, as the omicron sweeps across the state, this continued failure is blatantly negligent.

California must recognize its obligation to close the glaring gap between current state policy and federal recommendations. Our state legislature must immediately and permanently extend COVID-19 sick leave to meet federal quarantine guidelines for all workers.

Michael Losak is an assistant clinical professor and Christian Rose is an assistant professor and computer scientist in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine.