By Mariko Yoshihara
Now that the dust has settled after a flurry of action from the Governor’s office to meet this year’s bill signing deadline, it’s time to take stock of how workers fared during the 2013 legislative year. Although there were some challenges and setbacks, on balance, the California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA) and its many allies made some great progress in advancing the rights of California workers.
To start, the Governor signed several significant bills this year to help boost and protect the earnings of low-wage and immigrant workers. After years of stagnation and prior unsuccessful attempts, the state minimum wage will finally see an increase after the approval of AB 10 (Asm. Alejo). Even the Chamber of Commerce’s ignoble “job killer” list did not stop the Governor from signing AB 10 into law. The new law raises the $8 an hour minimum wage to $9 an hour, effective July 1, 2014, and from $9 an hour to $10 an hour, effective Jan. 1, 2016.
Domestic workers will also see a boost in wages after scoring a historic victory with AB 241 (Asm. Ammiano), known as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. After a disappointing veto last year on a similar bill, the Governor’s approval of AB 241 was a significant step forward for the Domestic Workers campaign, which has roots all across the nation. This law mandates overtime compensation for domestic workers in California who work over 9 hours in a day and over 45 hours in a week.
Bills to protect wages were also a highlight of this year’s legislative session. SB 496 (Sen. Monning), signed by the Governor this year, makes it easier for workers to pursue a claim for unpaid wages by eliminating the threat of potentially ruinous liability if they ultimately do not succeed on their claim.
Carwash workers cemented some much-needed protections by eliminating the sunset date on one of the most effective tools for combating wage theft in the car wash industry. AB 1387 (Asm. Hernandez) now permanently requires car washes to register and obtain a bond to fund an account for car wash workers who cannot collect their wages.
The Fair Paycheck Act, which would have helped all workers collect their unpaid wages, unfortunately suffered a defeat this year due to heavy lobbying by special interest groups in big business and banking. This bill would have authorized an employee to record and enforce a wage lien upon an employer’s property. Though unsuccessful, the Fair Paycheck campaign, led by a broad coalition of low wage worker advocates, will continue to rebuild as sights are set on another legislative attempt next year.
Two major victories scored this year were the signings of AB 263 (Asm. Hernandez) and SB 666 (Sen. Steinberg), a pair of bills aiming to protect and promote the rights of immigrant workers who suffer from pervasive abuse in the workplace. These bills help workers assert their rights by clarifying that retaliation protected under Labor Code 98.6 broadly includes any adverse actions (including threats of deportation). Additionally, these bills clarify that workers do not have to go through the cumbersome process of filing administrative complaints unless the Labor Code expressly requires it. Another immigrant workers’ rights bill signed this year, AB 524 (Asm. Mullin), makes it a crime for employers or their attorneys to use threats of deportation to exploit immigrant workers.
Whistleblowers also receive some added protection under SB 496 (Sen. Wright), which expands Labor Code 1102.5 to cover workers who are preemptively fired before they can report any wrongdoing and to cover a broader range of disclosures.
Proposals to strengthen the state’s family care laws met heavy opposition this year, with only one of three bills even making it to the Governor’s desk. SB 404 (Sen. Jackson) and SB 761 (Sen. DeSaulnier) – both labeled “job killers” by the Chamber of Commerce – stalled in committees. SB 404 would have prohibited discrimination against workers who care for their family members and SB 707 would have provided job protection for workers taking paid family leave. Unless they are lucky enough to work for an employer that is covered by the California Family Rights Act, workers who take paid family leave are still at risk of being fired for taking the leave.
SB 770 (Sen. Jackson) was the lone family care bill signed by the Governor into law. This bill expands the Paid Family Leave Program to provide wage replacement for workers taking care of seriously ill grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, and parents-in-law.
With the exception of one, the Governor signed several bills to help strengthen our workplace anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws. The lone defeat was SB 655 (Sen. Wright), a bill backed by a broad coalition of civil rights organizations in response to a California Supreme Court decision that undercuts the remedies available to victims of discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). SB 655 would have provided guidance in the enforcement of discrimination and retaliation claims under the FEHA and would have provided compensation for victims of discrimination and retaliation in certain kinds of cases.
The Governor did sign a couple of bills to expand workplace protections for veterans and those in the military, AB 556 (Asm. Salas), as well as for victims of domestic violence, SB 400 (Sen. Jackson). Significantly, SB 400 not only prohibits discrimination against victims of domestic violence, it also requires employers to provide victims with reasonable accommodations. The Governor also approved SB 292 (Sen. Corbett), which strengthens sexual harassment protections, particularly with same-sex harassment, by clarifying that harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire.
Former offenders will also find some added protections and help securing employment with the approval of AB 218 (Asm. Dickinson). As part of the nation-wide “ban the box” campaign, this bill has gone through many iterations and defeats in the past. Years in the making, this new law prohibits state and local agencies from asking an applicant to disclose information regarding a criminal conviction until after the agency has first determined whether the applicant meets minimum qualifications for the position.
All of the bills signed this year will take effect January 1st of 2014. And as we look at what new changes lie ahead, it’s clear to see that together we achieved considerable success on behalf of workers and working families in California.