How are small businesses and workers in Oakland being protected?

A closeup image of a traditional chalkboard.
Photo by rachelakelso via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

As we continue to grapple with COVID-19, many are faced with compromising situations such as how to deal with the  sudden loss of employment and how to properly prepare and stay healthy. As some folks figure out how to move forward, there are some options that offer to help in this crisis. According to Oakland’s paid sick leave, workers have the right to take paid time off to take care of themselves, family members or any designated individual who may be ill. Measure FF, passed in 2014, covers workers that have performed at least two hours of work to accrue and use paid sick leave. With the passage of CA Assembly Bill (AB) 5, gig and app-based workers are also eligible for paid sick leave. If a worker is unable to work in order to care for a family member who has been quarantined due to COVID-19, that worker is eligible for paid family leave.  

During this time, I took a moment to speak to two Oakland-based women who are directly being affected by this health crisis. The first is Candice Kelly, who is a marketing professional employed at Waterfront Hotel in Jack London Square in Oakland. She is responsible for bringing in $1.2 million in revenue through global and locally-based companies that require business-related travel or meetings here in the Bay Area. Like many, her duties can be performed from home but with the spread of COVID-19, her line of work quickly dried up. As news of the virus began to creep closer, Kelly’s role changed from successfully getting contracts for the hotel to consoling cancelling clients. For the past few weeks, she has been absorbing client’s fears of not being able to offer solidified follow up dates for postponed gatherings or shed more light on cancellations.    

Candice Kelly

The second was Aliyah Shaheed, who is a substitute teacher contracted with SFUSD who also works part-time at Whole Foods. As a substitute, the work is very dependent on the physical space. Substitutes often accept assignments the night before or the day off using a database. But as COVID-19 shut down schools, full time teachers have been scrambling to make their classrooms virtual spaces. The role of substitutes essentially became non-existent.  For Shaheed, job security was not really something she thought too hard about before because there was always a steady stream of work. However, now that the school year is looking very different, she fears that her role may be obsolete for a while.  

For Kelly, the hotel’s response to the virus happened in stages. As clients dwindled en masse, the unavailability of work progressively trickled down to other parts of the hotel’s operating areas such as catering, registration, housekeeping, valet and so forth. From there, many employees started volunteering to take vacation time. As COVID-19 worsened, a temporary lay off was issued. After remaining guests had checked out, the hotel decided to (temporarily) close. This is just one example of how a business in Oakland has rapidly made changes. 

For Shaheed, it was not so gradual. She describes the announcement of schools closing to be very abrupt. On March 12th, 2020, SFUSD announced that it was the last day of school, which created panic. There were many questions in regards to paid time off, scheduling, and so forth that the district had no answers to. Substitutes only get three paid sick days and emails from the district  proved to be inconclusive in addressing these issues. At the district level, schools are scheduled to reopen on April 3rd but on a state level, the lockdown is set to continue beyond that. 

Governor Newsom’s new executive order, released on March 12, waives the one week waiting period for those who are disabled and/or unemployed as a result of theCOVID-19. Workers who have lost work or have reduced hours can file for an unemployment insurance claim. Those who cannot work due to quarantine or illness may be eligible for disability insurance. The order also delays the deadline for tax state filing for 60 days for businesses and individuals unable to file due to non-compliant health requirements.  For businesses experiencing a slowdown, they are encouraged to participate in the EDD’s work sharing program.  

I asked both if they were receiving any assistance from her employer at this time. For Kelly, the individual owner of the hotel has elected to continue paying health benefits. She is eligible to file for unemployment assistance and as aforementioned in the new executive order, the waiting period has been waived. However, this does not cover one’s exact pay. For Shaheed, she is not getting any assistance and the school district has yet to give her formal documentation needed to support her unemployment claim. For her part-time job at Whole Foods, there has been a $2 hourly wage increase since the health crisis began. “People are ringing up what I make in a week, therefore I am being underpaid,Shaheed said

Both women had ideas on how worker protections could be strengthened. For Kelly, it is making sure workers have their healthcare  protected. What she said next was really thought-provoking. How truly authentic is the work-life balance? When workers call in sick, are they no longer team players? It sets a toxic work culture when employees feel the need to work late/extra hours to get caught up and for many, this is a day-to-day practice. Employees in many areas of the workforce are not getting the time they need to fully heal, she added. Shaheed brought up the fact that starting this year, part-time workers at Whole Foods are no longer entitled to health care. She recommends that workers in this line of work get hazard pay, unlimited paid time off, and that healthcare should not be tied to one’s job. These are essential jobs and workers are risking their lives coming in contact with everyone who comes in to shop.  

Waterfront Hotel in Jack London Square.

For Oakland residents, the city is offering support to mitigate residential displacement and housing costs. The Keep Oakland Housed program provides supportive services, emergency financial assistance, and legal representation. It works in partnership with the East Bay Community Law Center, Bay Area Community Services and Catholic Charities, East Bay.    

Lastly, I asked both women how their industries might change after this crisis eases up. Shaheed immediately said that the school district needs to have contingencies in place that can plan and have better systems in place for situations such as this. Kelly recommends a full re-evaluation of paid time off policies and even suggests a change in the language. Employers can help “By being more accommodating to working from home and not having to return to the work environment until you are fully healed,” she said. Paid time off is also needed for preventative care as well as mental health.

Here are some resources to be aware of (list compiled by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights):

Workers Rights in California

Governor Newsom’s Executive order 

If your employment has been impacted, visit the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency website to review what benefits are available to you:

  • If you lost your job or had reduced hours for reasons related to COVID-19 you may qualify for unemployment insurance. File A Claim Here
  • If you are unable to work due to medical quarantine or illness related to COVID-19 (certified by a medical professional) you may qualify for Disability Insurance. File a claim here
  • If you or a family member are sick or for preventative care when civil authorities recommend quarantine you may qualify for paid sick leave. File a Claim Here
  • If you are unable to work because you are caring for an ill or quarantined family member with COVID-19 (certified by a medical professional) you may qualify for Paid Family Leave. File A Claim Here

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About Iris Crawford

Iris M. Crawford, is a poet and social justice advocate. Hailing from New York City, she is a first-generation Guyanese- American. Her journey has allowed her to empower communities through health care advocacy, education and environmental justice. In 2018, Iris was selected as a semi-finalist Fulbright Scholar for an English Teaching Assistantship in South Africa. She also just became a resident of the 2020 Shuffle Collective Literary Arts Residency where she will be working to strengthen her creative work, gain skills to continue growing professionally and build community. She earned her BA in Political Philosophy and African American Studies from Syracuse University. View all posts by Iris Crawford →

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