Bill protecting workers from forced arbitration awaits Governor approval

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????What good is a law designed to protect your rights in the workplace if your employer can coerce you into waiving those rights as a condition of employment?  Not much good at all.  But the good news is that a recent bill passed by the California Legislature will prevent unscrupulous employers from strong-arming workers into waiving important rights.

AB 465, which is awaiting the Governor’s signature, would ban the practice of requiring workers to waive any of their rights, forums and procedures guaranteed by the California Labor Code.  The “forum and procedures” language is critical, because it targets the widespread practice of forcing employees to sign mandatory arbitration clauses.  Ending this abusive tactic is at the heart of what AB 465 seeks to accomplish.

Arbitration clauses are everywhere: in credit card agreements, in hospital admission forms, and in any number of lengthy, legalistic documents you routinely sign without bothering to read.  But arbitration clauses have become especially prevalent in the workplace.  Under current California law, your employer can fire you if you refuse to agree to submit all of your employment-related disputes to arbitration.

What’s wrong with arbitration?  Nothing at all, if the decision to arbitrate is made knowingly and voluntarily by all parties.   But coerced arbitration is inherently unfair to the employee and skews the balance of power further in the direction of the employer.   Instead of having your dispute heard by a court or state agency – institutions relatively immune to undue influence by the employer – your case will be decided by an individual paid by the employer, pursuant to a process designed by the employer or by the arbitration provider selected by the employer.

Do you want to go to the Labor Commissioner or other state agency over wage, working conditions or occupational safety issues?  Too bad.  You’ve agreed to private arbitration.   Do you want to band together with co-workers and file a class action to address wage theft, misclassification, or other issues best decided on a collective basis?  Too bad.   And if you’re an immigrant worker with a limited command of English, you may not even know that you’ve agreed to private arbitration.  Again, too bad.  Still enforceable.

But not if Governor Brown signs the bill.  If it becomes law, this bill will prevent employers from coercing you to waive any right guaranteed by the California Labor Code as a condition of employment, including your right to take your employer to court or file a complaint with a government agency.

This bill doesn’t solve all the problems workers face in the world of mandatory arbitration since it only applies to Labor Code violations.  That means it does not apply to workplace anti-discrimination provisions, which are part of a separate Code.  You can still be fired for refusing to submit your discrimination, retaliation or harassment claims to arbitration.  For now.

Mandatory arbitration may be an idea whose time has come and is now, finally, going.  Last year, the California Legislature passed a bill prohibiting mandatory waivers of the right to go to court for certain “hate crimes.”  President Obama signed an Executive Order prohibiting employers with federal contracts from requiring their employees to sign mandatory arbitration clauses.  AB 465 is an important next step in what workers’ rights advocates hope will be the dismantling of the mandatory arbitration machine employers have constructed.

Curt Surls

About Curt Surls

Curt Surls has been practicing in Los Angeles, specializing in employment law, for almost 25 years. Mr. Surls is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a non-profit professional association honoring lawyers whose careers have demonstrated dedication to the welfare of the community and the traditions of the profession. Prior to opening the Law Office of Curt Surls in July 2012, he was a partner with Bornn & Surls for over 15 years. Mr. Surls was also an attorney with the Oakland civil rights firm then known as Saperstein, Seligman & Mayeda, specializing in employment and civil rights class actions. Mr. Surls also worked for the Department of Industrial Relations and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Worker classification and secure work in the “sharing economy”

FullSizeRender-1By Veena Dubal

Last month, a California Labor Commissioner decided that Barbara Ann Berwick was an employee of (venture capital darling) Uber for purposes of employment protection under California law.   A charged media flurry followed.   If Uber drivers were employees, then was the company’s highly profitable business model kaput?   Were casual Uber drivers going to be entitled to minimum wage and business expenses (like gas and car upkeep)?  What did this mean for the potential success of other aspiring businesses in the so-called “sharing-economy”?  How did the commissioner come to this decision?  What defines an employee?

While the Berwick decision forced many non-lawyers to think about worker classification for the first time, this debate is nothing new in the tort context.   Courts have long struggled to distinguish independent contractors and employees when determining vicarious liability.   Who should be responsible for the negligence of a worker?  This question, under the common law, turned on an unwieldy analysis of whether that worker was an independent businessman, engaged in his own entrepreneurial dealings, or an employee laboring for an employer.  Far from being easily identifiable, the definition of an employee for tort purposes has resulted in much head scratching, with courts coming down differently while applying the same facts to the same (capacious) set of rules.

But where did this idea that only common law “employees” get work safety net benefits come from?  What few understand is that applying this dichotomous classification in tort law to the context of employee protections is not natural or necessary.   In fact it is relatively recent.  Whether or not the application makes good legal sense or serves broader social goals is worth pondering.

In the tort context, the inquiry boils down to an analysis (crudely put) about who deserves blame, that is, who is really in charge (or, in legal terms, who controls the means and manner of production).   U.S. courts first began to borrow this analysis and utilize it in the employment protection context when businesses tried to evade New Deal legislation put in place to protect the ordinary worker.   Prior to efforts by business representatives to dodge the costs associated with secure work, service workers – including insurance salesmen, taxi drivers, and newspaper boys – were protected under the law.   Indeed, the legislative history of the New Deal reveals no Congressional debate on whether or not “independent contractors” should be covered.  The term used over and over again, by both representatives of manufacturing and of labor, is “worker.”

Today, in what is popularly termed the corporate “sharing economy” – or perhaps more aptly, the “sharing-the-scraps economy” – companies are borrowing from post-New Deal efforts by businesses to increase their own profit through use of “contractors,” evading laws intended to force them to take responsibility for their workers.  Uber, for example, is reaping huge profits from the labor of casual drivers by calling those workers “independent businessmen.”  The company’s position has been that this contractor status of workers means that the company is not liable for the worker’s negligence – OR for the health, safety, and financial security of Uber drivers.

While across the country, judges, commissioners, and regulators have come down differently about whether or not Uber drivers are employees, the history and legislative intent of employment protections begs the question:  why are courts applying the reasoning of tort law to social policy that is intended to create a safety net for workers?

As we enter a historical moment when half the working population will be laboring casually and precariously as a result of evolving business models, we must ask not, “who is an employee” under the common law, but how do we use laws and regulations to create stable and secure work environments?

Veena Dubal is an Associate Professor at University of California Hastings College of Law.  Professor Dubal’s research focuses primarily on law and social change in the context of work law.  Her dissertation, a three year ethnography, examines the work lives and worker collectivities of taxi drivers in San Francisco. Her research suggests that conventional wisdom on lawyering on behalf of low-income independent contractors needs to be re-examined and re-configured based on the desires and everyday realities of these workers.  An earlier version of this blog post was published on the author’s blog.

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On to the next battle — employment equality for LGBT workers

By Lisa Mak


Last Friday, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across America.  This historic decision was a momentous step forward in advancing equality for the LGBT community, but the fight for equality is far from over.  What’s next?

The first battleground is to achieve recognition on a national level that the right to work free from discrimination is a fundamental civil right.  According to a report published last month by the Movement Advancement Project, 61 percent of the LGBT population live in states with medium or low legal protections, or that have hostile laws that restrict their rights.  This includes insufficient to non-existent protections in the employment area, as the report specified that 52 percent of the LGBT population live in states that do not prevent employers from firing them based on their sexual orientation.  Imagine: an employee exercises her Constitutional right to marry on a Saturday, and then on Monday gets fired for doing so.  Or for placing a wedding picture on her desk, talking about her spouse, or expressing her sexual identity in any way.  Outrageously, this could be the reality for the majority of LGBT employees in this country.

Employment discrimination against LGBT workers is undeniably still a prevalent problem.  A 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 21 percent of people surveyed said they had been treated unfairly by an employer based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.  The percentages were markedly higher for transgender employees and LGBT people of color.  A 2013 report authored by various organizations found that nearly 50 percent of black LGBT employees reported experiencing discrimination at work due to their sexual orientation.  Between 75 and 82 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander LGBT employees reported workplace discrimination as well.  Such discrimination can include the failure to hire or promote LGBT workers, workplace harassment, unequal wages, and the lack of on-the-job support – the same kinds of employment rights that other minority groups have been advocating for in the workplace for decades.

Despite these realities, according to data from the Human Rights Campaign, only 19 states currently have laws that prohibit workplace discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender identity.  Another three states prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, but not gender identity.  Ten states have employment protections based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity only for public employees, which does nothing for private sector workers.  And in 18 states, LGBT employees still have no employment protections at all.  That lack of protection is just another form of denying equality for employees.

The situation is even bleaker at the federal level, although progress is being made. Yet there is still no federal statute that protects employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.  The proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would prohibit such discrimination has been introduced in Congress each year since 1994, but has never mustered enough Republican support to make it to the President’s desk.  Last year, House Speaker John Boehner openly expressed his disapproval of ENDA, telling the LGBT Equality Caucus that there was “no way” the legislation would pass that year.  Boehner stated that the bill was “unnecessary” because “people are already protected in the workplace.” Boehner’s statement and others like it demonstrate just how out of touch key members of Congress are with the kind of discrimination LGBT workers face.

Gainful employment instills a sense of purpose and dignity, and increases meaningful contributions to our communities.  Our anti-discrimination laws are in place to correct the traditional exclusion of marginalized groups – such as women, older workers, and racial minorities – and to ensure equal employment opportunities.  It is time to fully add LGBT employees to that list.  Whether single or married, they should not be penalized in their careers or livelihood for exercising their right to work.

It’s time for Congress to pass ENDA at the federal level and for State legislatures to implement or expand laws to protect LGBT employees.  Work must continue in every arena, including in those States where there are already such laws, such as California, where agencies and attorneys should bring critical cases to strengthen enforcement.  Finally, businesses should work to create an inclusive workplace for LGBT employees through policies, practices, and training.  Many companies have already done so, but others continue to flaunt their willingness to discriminate.

As Justice Kennedy wrote in the Obergefell decision, in seeking the right to marriage, same-sex individuals asked “for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”  We should continue to recognize this dignity by continuing to address the gap in legal employment protections for the LGBT community.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Valuing fatherhood in the workplace


By Sarah Schlehr and Mariko Yoshihara

This Father’s Day, let’s do more than just celebrate our dads with Hallmark cards and backyard barbecues.  Instead, let’s give our dads something they really need – flexible workplace policies.

It can’t be surprising that the increase of women in the workforce, coupled with laws that discourage fathers from taking leave, has created a cascade of domestic stresses.  While women still bear a disproportionate share of the domestic work despite also working outside the home, working fathers now report feeling more work-family conflict than working mothers do.  The irony of this conflict is that fathers are actually prevented from sharing some of the burdens (and joys) of family life because they are saddled by Leave It To Beaver-era parental leave laws.

The good news is, change appears to be on the horizon.  This April, Massachusetts became the first state to require all but the smallest employers to provide fathers with unpaid job-protected leave for the birth of a child.  The law, renamed from the Maternity Leave Act to the Parental Leave Act,  requires businesses with at least six employees to cover dads as well as moms.  The expanded coverage is a much-needed first step in recognizing the universal need for fathers to spend time and bond with their newborn children.

A 2007 study found that fathers who took two or more weeks of leave after a child was born were more likely to perform certain daily child care tasks, like diapering, feeding, and bathing later on.  Fathers who took less than two weeks of leave were no more involved than those who took no leave at all.

Despite the clear benefit of taking time off to bond with a new child, fewer and fewer businesses are offering leave benefits to fathers and research has shown that those who do take leave face a significant stigma in the workplace (let’s not forget the New York Mets baseball player, Daniel Murphy, who was criticized when he took three days off for the birth of his child).

According to a recent study, most fathers only take between one and two weeks off after the birth of a child and the length of time off was closely tied to how much of the leave was paid.  Luckily, California is one of the few states that offer paid leave to parents.  And it’s no surprise that since the program was implemented, the percentage of “bonding leaves” claimed by men has gone up from 18.7 percent in 2005 and 2006 to 31.3 percent in 2012 and 2013.

Unfortunately, many fathers, especially low-income fathers, cannot take advantage of paid leave because their employers are too small to be covered by a law that would provide the new dads with job protection.  Most fathers simply cannot risk losing their job, especially after the birth of a new child.  Leaving aside the lucky Massachusetts dads, the only fathers who can access job-protected leave are those who are covered by the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or a state law corollary.  But these laws leave a lot of fathers out in the cold since they only cover employees who work for companies with 50 or more employees and who have worked there for at least a year.

Incremental change may be on the way in California, where advocates for working dads (and moms) are pushing to increase the boundaries of who is covered by the California Family Rights Act, California’s corollary to the FMLA.  California’s SB 406, the legislation that would amend the law, does not go as far as the Massachusetts parental leave law.  But it does propose to expand leave rights to workers at smaller businesses, by lowering the employee threshold from 50 or more employees to 25 or more.

While SB 406 and the Massachusetts law are certainly steps in the right direction, both still lag far behind what other countries provide for their fathers.  For years, Sweden has had a generous parental leave policy of 16 months that could be shared by the mother and father.  Beginning in 1995, Sweden introduced a “use it or lose it” policy that reserved one month specifically for dads.  This was increased to two months in 2002 and will increase again to 3 months in 2016.  Some countries, like Chile, Portugal, and Italy, go so far as to make paternity leave compulsory, to help ensure that fathers share childcare responsibility with mothers.

It’s time for California and the rest of the United States to catch up and show that the job of parent is at least as important as the jobs parents perform for their employers.

Sarah Schlehr

About Sarah Schlehr

Sarah B. Schlehr is the founder of The Schlehr Law Firm, P.C. Her firm focuses on representing employees who are discriminated against because of pregnancy or for taking a leave of absence. Her firm also represents veterans who have been discriminated against for taking military leave. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School, Brigham Young University, Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College, and the Strauss Institutes’ Program on Mediating the Litigated Case.

Religious freedom comes of age in corporate America


By Alan Reinach

Religious minorities have always been at the forefront of pushing religious freedom in American law. This year is no different, as Samantha Elauf, a young Muslim woman, won a critical case on behalf of all who seek workplace accommodations for their religious beliefs and practices. Ms. Elauf was denied a job at popular retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, not because she was unqualified, but because she wore a head scarf. Although she was never asked why she wore the scarf to her interview, managers assumed it was for religious reasons, and for that reason, didn’t hire her. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took up Ms. Elauf’s religious discrimination case, all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision rejected A & F’s argument that its “look” policy is religion neutral, and therefore, not discriminatory. The Court held that employers must treat religious beliefs and practices favorably, and cannot hide behind “religion-neutral” policies.

This decision is a stunning reversal of a decades-long trend treating religious accommodation claims with suspicion. Some fifty years ago, in the wake of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, President Johnson arm twisted and cajoled Congress into enacting the Civil Rights Act, in honor of Kennedy’s legacy. While the act outlawed employment discrimination on the all the usual bases, religion has always been a poor stepchild.

Almost immediately, the question arose whether the Act’s prohibition of religious discrimination required employers to accommodate the religious beliefs and practices of its employees. Typically, such accommodations involve making exceptions from dress codes for religious expressions such as beards or yarmulkes. Or, even more commonly, employers are asked to permit workers time off to observe the Sabbath, a religious holiday, or to attend church.

When courts were divided on how to answer this question, Congress amended the Civil Rights Act in 1972 to clarify the employers must provide “reasonable accommodation,” but only if it does not result in an “undue hardship.” Still, employers did not know what these vague terms meant in practice. In a 1977 decision in Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, the Supreme Court appeared to view religious accommodation with suspicion, holding that even a minimal amount of hardship was “undue.” The back story on this case is that the court was asked to invalidate religious accommodation altogether as a violation of the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” separating church and state. Although the Court’s decision avoided the establishment clause argument, it greatly weakened the law instead.

The next time religious accommodation went to the Supreme Court was in 1986, when the Supreme Court held, in Ansonia Board of Education v. Philbrook, that employers get to choose among alternative accommodations. Often, employers choose accommodations that disadvantage employees.  This decision also weakened the position of workers seeking religious accommodation.

In 1990, when Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act, Congress used the same legal standard for the disabled:  reasonable accommodation short of an undue hardship, but defined undue hardship as one causing “significant difficulty or expense.” Advocates for religious freedom began to draft comparable language, and have been asking Congress for nearly twenty years to toughen the religious accommodation law, to no avail.

But 1990 also saw a Supreme Court decision in a religious freedom case, Employment Division v. Smith, which has had an enormous impact on workplace discrimination. In the now infamous “peyote” case, Justice Scalia wrote that religion neutral laws did not raise First Amendment free exercise of religion concerns. Employers have often assumed the same logic applies to their own religion neutral policies – that they need make no exception for religious beliefs and practices. In practice, many Americans have lost their jobs because employers refused to make any exceptions for their religious observances, even when they could do so easily.

Justice Scalia’s opinion for an 8-1 majority in the Elauf case now buries the notion that company policies “trump” religious accommodation requests. The impact on companies will be modest, since such requests are typically quite few in number. But for those Americans of all faiths who can’t just park their religion at home when they go to work, the implications are huge. The issue in Samantha Elauf’s case concerned appearance: wearing of a head scarf. Clearly, the case signals a shift away from conformity to corporate appearance standards. California has gone even further, forbidding employers from segregating workers from the public on account of their religious appearance.

But the decision also implicates many other corporate policies, especially scheduling and discipline. Companies will have to become more flexible in scheduling those who need time to observe the Sabbath or attend church. They will also have to refrain from disciplining workers who would otherwise accumulate attendance points on account of religious observances.

Religious freedom has finally come of age in corporate America.

Alan Reinach

About Alan Reinach

Alan J. Reinach, Esq., is the Executive Director of the Church State Council, the oldest public policy organization in the west devoted exclusively to issues of religious discrimination and the separation of church and state.

The Fair Scheduling Act: Get the facts

Via Twitter: @ChelseaRosario_

Via Twitter: @ChelseaRosario_

Over the past few months, the Chamber of Commerce and its Big Business allies have mounted an all-out war against AB 357, the Fair Scheduling Act of 2015, by Assemblymember Chiu and Assemblymember Weber.  AB 357 is a bill that would simply ensure that workers are provided with fair and predictable work schedules so that they can manage their lives and other commitments, like second jobs, school, family care, or medical appointments.  As more employers move to “just-in-time” scheduling, which gives workers little to no notice of what days or hours they’ll be working, the need for AB 357 is abundantly clear, which is why dozens of labor, civil rights, anti-poverty and women’s groups all support this bill.

Yet, as the bill moves to a floor vote in the Assembly this week, opponents of the bill have been bombarding legislators and news outlets with misleading information and “sky is falling” rhetoric designed to confuse legislators and alarm small businesses in the state.  Don’t be fooled.

First, this bill only applies to very large food and retail establishments — those with 500 or more employees in the state and 10 or more establishments in the United States — large corporations with extensive resources.  In fact, these are the corporations that created the advanced computerized scheduling algorithms that have put workers’ schedules in constant flux in order to maximize profitability.

The Chamber claims that the bill would penalize employers who make changes to a work schedule with less than two weeks’ notice of the scheduled shift.  This is false.  Additional pay is only required if a change is made with less than one week’s notice. The penalty for short scheduling is only one hour of additional pay, unless the change is made within 24 hours of the scheduled shift, in which case the extra pay varies between two and four hours of additional pay, depending on the length of the shift.  Considering the havoc this type of erratic scheduling wreaks on workers juggling multiple jobs and families, this is hardly a severe penalty.

They also claim that this bill denies employees the opportunity to pick up additional hours at the last minute.  This, too, is false.  The bill contains numerous exceptions that allow for flexibility.  For example, the bill would not apply if another employee is unable to work because of illness, vacation, or time off or if an employee trades shifts with another employee or requests a change in his or her shift.

Opponents argue that the bill would tie the hands of store managers in their ability to deal with unforeseen circumstances such as changes in weather, a product delivery date or a product launch.  The bill explicitly provides exceptions for situations like public utilities failures or acts of God.   Product delivery dates or product launches, on the other hand, are circumstances that large retailers know about well in advance.  Nothing prevents them from making necessary scheduling changes with adequate notice to its workers.

As a last ditch effort, opponents clamor for more time to assess how San Francisco’s fair scheduling ordinance will work.  For the thousands of workers whose schedules change daily, the time to act is now.  In fact, a unified statewide policy would benefit both retailers and workers in California.  Otherwise, retailers will have to deal with a patchwork of local laws as other cities follow in San Francisco’s footsteps.

It is time to set the facts straight on AB 357.  Scheduling fairness has been a core, fundamental principle of this state since the establishment of the eight-hour day and forty-hour work week.

Even in 1999, when the legislature passed AB 60, which codified California’s overtime requirements, the Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, stating that “employers should be able to work employees 10 or 12 hours a day, without the penalty of overtime if competitive forces necessitate such work schedules.”

We cannot buy in to the same old arguments.  In the same way overtime laws affect employer scheduling practices – by imposing a premium or penalty on an employer for using overtime labor– and to compensate employees for the burden of a long week, AB 357 would impose a premium on an employer for last-minute scheduling changes. The power dynamic between employer and employee is already skewed in favor of the employer. Compensating employees for the burden of an erratic schedule is just a small incentive for employers to plan ahead so employees can do the same.

AB 357 is about fundamental fairness and recognizing that, like with our overtime laws, maximizing profitability for large businesses should not come at the expense of our working families.

What do the United States and Papua New Guinea have in common?

What do the United States and Papua New Guinea have in common?  According to the United Nations, they are the only countries in the world without any sort of paid time off for new mothers.

In the Mother’s Day edition of his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” John Oliver, the British comedian who is perpetually incredulous over most things American, juxtaposed the maudlin, corporate exploitation of the holiday with the grim economic realities facing working mothers in this country.  But Oliver noted a tiny bright spot.  Three states, California, Rhode Island and New Jersey, have some sort of limited paid leave for new mothers.

California’s paid family leave program is modest.  Payments are only partial and a worker can be fired for taking paid family leave unless they are also eligible for job protection under the California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”).  Yet, only workers at companies with 50 or more employees and who have been on the job for at least a year are covered under CFRA.  Accordingly, only about half of California employees can actually take advantage of the paid family leave program.

That may be about to change.  Senate Bill 406, currently pending before the California Legislature, would expand the job-protection coverage of the paid family leave program to include smaller companies of 25 or more employees.  It would also expand the definition of family member for whom a worker can take job-protected leave to care for to reflect the realities of modern families, by including grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, and adult children.

Even this modest expansion of the paid leave program has drawn the garment-rending wailing of the Chamber of Commerce, who predictably labeled it a “job killer.”  In the Mother’s Day clip, Oliver mocked the overwrought rhetoric and overblown fears of Congressional opponents of the unpaid Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) in 1992:  “Our businesses shall crumble, or cities shall burn and hungry wolves will roam the streets.”

In reality, a 2012 Department of Labor survey showed only 15% of employers reporting any significant difficulty in complying with the FMLA.   There were no reports of hungry wolves.  A similar study conducted ten years after the enactment of California’s Paid Family Leave Act found that 90% of California employers considered the Act to have a positive or neutral effect on productivity, profit, morale and costs.

Progress in protecting the economic security of families seems to happen only incrementally.  The expansion of California’s paid leave program reflected in SB 406 is a great next step.  Let’s leave Papua New Guinea in the dust!

Watch the John Oliver clip by clicking here.

Curt Surls

About Curt Surls

Curt Surls has been practicing in Los Angeles, specializing in employment law, for almost 25 years. Mr. Surls is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a non-profit professional association honoring lawyers whose careers have demonstrated dedication to the welfare of the community and the traditions of the profession. Prior to opening the Law Office of Curt Surls in July 2012, he was a partner with Bornn & Surls for over 15 years. Mr. Surls was also an attorney with the Oakland civil rights firm then known as Saperstein, Seligman & Mayeda, specializing in employment and civil rights class actions. Mr. Surls also worked for the Department of Industrial Relations and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Three California bills to support this Equal Pay Day

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????By Mariko Yoshihara

Today we recognize Equal Pay Day, which marks the day in 2015 when the average woman could finally stop working if she was hoping to make the same amount of money the average man made last year.  Last year, Equal Pay Day was on April 7th.  In 2013, Equal Pay Day was on April 9th.  That’s right, over the past few years the day where women finally catch up has become harder, not easier, to reach.  In fact, according to a recent study  the gender wage gap in this country will not close until 2058.  The outlook is a little better for California, where the gender wage gap is projected to close in 2042.  But this is unacceptable.  Some women will never see pay equity in their lifetime.

Even more distressing is the size of the wage gap and its economic consequences for women of color, particularly in California.  While white women in California earn 76 cents for every $1 a white man makes, Hispanic women and African American women earn only 44 cents and 64 cents, respectively, for every $1 a white man makes.  California ranks third, only to Texas and New Jersey, for the largest wage gap for Hispanic women.

But not all hope is lost.  Some members of the California legislature are taking an aggressive approach to tackling the gender wage gap this year, with three separate measures that address pay equity directly, and dozens of other bills that address women’s economic security generally. Here are the three pay equity bills to watch:

  • Senate Bill 358, by Senator Jackson, will help strengthen California’s Equal Pay Act by eliminating loopholes that prevent effective enforcement and by empowering employees to discuss and inquire about pay in the workplace without fear of retaliation.
  • Assembly Bill 1017, by Assemblymember Campos, will help prevent employers from preserving and perpetuating historical pay inequities by prohibiting them from asking job applicants for prior salaries.  This bill will help put men and women on more of an equal footing when negotiating pay with prospective employers.
  • Assembly Bill 1354, by Assemblymember Dodd, will require state contractors to submit equal pay reports to the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, containing summary data of their workers’ compensation, broken down by race and gender.  Simply by requiring employers to compile this data, the bill will help employers take proactive measures to ensure their pay practices are fair and equitable.

All three of these bills will be heard in their first policy committee next Wednesday, April 22nd. Call or write your state representatives and tell them to support these important bills that will help bring us closer to finally achieving pay equity in California.

Closing the wage gap: Why employers should stop asking for prior salaries


By Mariko Yoshihara

In an op-ed published this week in the San Francisco Chronicle, I argue that we are forcing women to bear the burden of the gender wage gap when we allow employers to use prior salaries as a basis for pay decisions during the hiring process.  It’s bad enough employers make you show your cards in salary negotiations, in some cases it’s not an option not to disclose, but it’s even worse when we know women have historically been dealt an unfair hand.

Women today are still making 78 cents for every dollar a white man makes and the wage gap is significantly larger for African American and Hispanic women who make 44 cents and 64 cents, respectively, for every dollar a white man makes. Disclosing these depressed wages to new employers undermines the value of women’s work and makes it more difficult for women to negotiate fair pay.

There are many things that contribute to the gender wage gap, but there is one simple way to help minimize its impact on women trying to get ahead — limit the employer’s ability to seek information about prior pay.  It’s time to equalize the playing field when it comes to negotiating salaries.  Allowing women to ask for salaries that are untethered to past inequities would be an important first step.

Read the full opinion piece here.

Kicking them while they’re down: Bill to treat former substance abusers as independent contractors is wrong

Sacramento State Capitol of California Building

By Sami N. Khadder

A new effort is underway to deprive a certain class of workers of the most basic benefits and protections of employment.

Last month, Assemblymember Marie Waldron (R-San Diego) introduced AB 500, which would allow employers to hire workers who have successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program following conviction of a non-violent felony as independent contractors rather than employees for a period of two years.

The targets of this bill are workers for whom steady and fair employment is a means to rebuild a life and to prevent a relapse of the ravages of addiction. AB 500 is a cynical bill that would codify discrimination and perpetuate mistreatment of this already vulnerable group.

For starters, the language of the bill violates existing federal anti-discrimination law. The Americans with Disabilities Act  considers those who have received treatment for drug or alcohol abuse as qualified individuals with a disability who are entitled to reasonable accommodation. Contrary to the express purpose of the ADA, AB 500 stigmatizes individuals who have completed a substance abuse rehabilitation program by denying them, for a period of two years, the legal protections normally offered to employees in California. Stigmatizing people with disabilities is what gave rise to the disability rights movement to begin with.

Codifying second class status for workers with a substance abuse history is bad enough, but the effect of the bill is even more insidious. Under California law, a person who provides services for another person or entity is presumed to be an employee of that person or entity – as opposed to an independent contractor. The distinction is meaningful. Independent contractors are not entitled to the protections of the California Labor Code, which means they have no minimum wage or overtime protections and no entitlement to meal and rest breaks. Independent contractors are also exempted from the laws prohibiting discrimination or retaliation in the workplace, and they are not entitled to unemployment insurance or Social Security contributions. The bill would also allow employers to avoid the cost of carrying workers’ compensation insurance, leaving independent contractors unprotected in the event of a workplace injury.

Employers often complain that the cost of providing these benefits to their workers has grown too high and some may look with favor at the proposed economic windfall — being able to hire rehabilitated drug offenders for two years for less than the minimum wage, without having to provide overtime pay, workers’ compensation insurance or protections from unlawful discrimination.  But these benefits are essential to providing a fair and safe work environment for California workers. Without these protections, the State would invariably end up shouldering much of the costs, while the employers would reap all the benefits.

Some advocates of the bill may believe that the bill encourages employers to give people with a history of substance abuse an opportunity to work their way into full employment status.  But AB 500 would require applicants to disclose to potential employers that they have been convicted of a crime. Such disclosure is currently prohibited under certain circumstances.  More importantly, there is ample evidence that qualified applicants who disclose their criminal history are just as likely to be denied employment altogether, a result directly contrary to the intended result.

Others may take a harder line toward former substance abusers, believing that second class status in the workplace is appropriate because substance abusers should suffer the consequences of their poor decisions. But how does stripping anti-discrimination protections, overtime, and workers’ compensation achieve any policy goal related to rehabilitation or substance abuse prevention?

What is undeniable is that AB 500 targets a vulnerable constituency. And if the move to strip their rights is successful, it could embolden employers to seek further erosions of the benefits and protections of employees. Who would be next?  The long-term unemployed, veterans, the homeless? For those already struggling to become productive members of society, our goal should be to eliminate obstacles, not create them.

Sami Khadder

About Sami Khadder

Sami N. Khadder is the founder of the Khadder Law Firm. He has a decade of litigation experience, with the majority of his career dedicated to fighting for the rights of employees and individuals. Mr. Khadder began his career as an intellectual property defense attorney, but soon realized that the pursuit of justice on behalf of those who need it most was a far more gratifying use of his legal education and experience. Mr. Khadder looks forward to continuing the fight for justice.

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