By Alejandro Lazo, CalMatters 

Essential workers such as supermarket cashier Brittannie Gulley are once again on the front lines of another COVID-19 surge. Only this time, they’re on the job without the initial policies intended to protect them.

As the pandemic unfolded, California funneled federal emergency unemployment benefits and tapped a budget surplus to help workers stay at home and weather the virus-induced recession. Sick pay benefits that were extended to 10 days for workers who needed to quarantine expired last year, along with other protections.

“I am the sole provider for my children,” said Gulley, a 34-year-old single mother from Norwalk who works at a Stater Bros. Markets grocery store. “I’ll really take a hit if I have to go out: whether I’m sick or I just have to quarantine, there’s nothing for me.”

Stater Bros. declined to comment.

This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative leaders, all Democrats, appear poised to reinstate some version of sick pay, though workers, advocates and union leaders fear that those measures are likely to come too late for many facing a fast-moving virus. Stimulus checks were left out of Newsom’s latest budget proposal and there’s been little discussion of an additional unemployment benefits in Congress. A spokesman said Newsom was working with the Legislature on sick pay.

Business groups are pushing back against further mandates they would have to shoulder. California had the highest November unemployment rate in the country, at 6.9%, and new regulations could further hamper the state’s recovery, they said.

“We’re very concerned that this year there’s going to be some overreaction, politically, and that’s going to hurt businesses more,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable.

Essential workers in food, agriculture, manufacturing and health care say they fear losing pay just as much as they fear falling ill during the latest omicron wave. Some who get infected are taking unpaid leave or vacation days to quarantine. Others are reporting to work infected, workers and union officials said.

Ingrid Vilorio, 40, who lives in the community of San Lorenzo in San Francisco’s East Bay, said she can’t leave her job working at a Jack in the Box restaurant, despite her fears of bringing the virus home to her family.

“If everybody quit their jobs, in what state would our economy be in?” Vilorio said. “If we all thought that way, well, California would be completely shut down.”

Economists said the omicron variant could mean more pain for California’s low-wage workers who were already struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic started. Unable to pivot to remote, work-from-home arrangements, these workers experienced the worst job losses at the outset of the pandemic and are lagging in the recovery.

Before the omicron wave arrived, low-wage sectors such as leisure and hospitality were 517,000 jobs short of their pre-pandemic levels, according to a California Department of Finance analysis of employment data through November. That compared to 309,000 fewer high-wage sector jobs over the same period.

Low-wage workers who lost their jobs at the onset of the pandemic may face more barriers than high-wage workers. Others remain sidelined by lack of child care and transportation.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, workers are feeling burnout and exhaustion with uncertain schedules that can’t accommodate another round of remote learning or having infected children quarantine at home. Various reports have tracked the pandemic’s negative impact on working mothers, sometimes sending middle-class families into poverty.

Christopher Thornberg, founding partner of research firm Beacon Economics, said that an upside of the omicron variant is that it was relatively mild. That, combined with its virulence, could help both society and the economy finally kick the pandemic.

“Omicron may be exactly what we needed,” Thornberg said. “It’s relatively mild and incredibly contagious, which means it’s going to rip through the population relatively quickly.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.