Far-reaching new laws seek to better working conditions for a broad swath of Californians in 2023 from white-collar employees to blue-collar farm laborers, fast-food servers and construction workers.
Measures expanding family leave, providing for bereavement leave and mandating pay transparency are among lawmakers’ “incredibly productive” record of accomplishment, said Mariko Yoshihara, legislative counsel and policy director for the California Employment Lawyers Assn. “But there’s still a lot more work to do.”
Legislative wrestling between worker advocates and the state’s powerful industries meant several ambitious efforts failed to gain traction last year. They are likely to surface again this year, including bills to expand overtime, protect employees from artificial intelligence surveillance and stop businesses from moving call centers out of state.
The California Chamber of Commerce celebrated the demise of 17 out of 19 bills it had dubbed “job killers” reflecting “a lack of appreciation of the economic realities and regulatory challenges employers — and especially small business employers — face as they continue to emerge from the impacts of the pandemic.”
One of the most controversial new laws, aiming to set industrywide wage and workplace conditions for fast-food restaurants, is on hold as opponents seek to overturn it with a proposed 2024 ballot measure.
Nonetheless, in a big win for low-wage workers most affected by the state’s high cost of living, California raised its minimum wage to $15.50 on Jan. 1, applying it to all employers, regardless of size. The half-dollar boost resulted from a 2016 law that mandated inflation-related adjustments.
An estimated 3.2 million Californians — 18.9% of the workforce — are getting raises, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
The Golden State’s 2023 pay floor is the highest after Washington state ($15.74) and Washington, D.C. ($16.10). But more than 30 California cities and counties have enacted minimums above the state’s, including the city of Los Angeles, which raised its floor to $16.04 in July.
Among the most significant new labor laws:
Can employers get away with paying women less than men? With paying Latino, Black and Asian workers less than white counterparts?
Senate Bill 1162, written by Sen. Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara) makes that harder by requiring employers with 15 or more workers to reveal salary ranges to workers and list them on job postings. The California Labor Commissioner can issue fines of as much as $10,000 for failure to comply.
The law was championed by first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, a leader of a campaign to close the gender pay gap. It was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, surrounded by members of the Legislative Women’s Caucus.
Limón called it “a big moment for California workers, especially women and people of color who have long been impacted by systemic inequities that have left them earning far less than their colleagues.”
In December, just 44% of California employers included pay data in their job postings, according to an analysis by the job site Indeed.
Washington, Colorado, Connecticut and New York City have enacted similar transparency laws. California’s new measure builds on a 2020 law requiring companies with more than 100 employees to confidentially submit wage data by sex, race, ethnicity and job category to the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
That reporting will now also be required for workers hired through third-party staffing agencies or labor contractors.
Limon’s original bill would have required the state to publicly disclose the pay data it collects from individual companies with 250 employees or more — not just issue general reports. The provision was removed after furious pushback by business groups. The California Chamber of Commerce called it a “cynical and disingenuous” measure that would invite lawsuits.
Limón plans to continue the push for more disclosure, saying, “This fight is far from over.”
What if you and other Californians funded the state’s family leave program through your paycheck deductions, but then, after you gave birth or had to care for a sick relative, you couldn’t afford to miss work?
For two decades, that was the case for millions of workers because the program offered just 55% wage replacement for as long as six weeks — a hardship for people barely making ends meet in a state with a high cost of living.
Many low-wage Californians, disproportionately Latino, Black and female, have had “to keep working against their doctor’s orders, to work up until the day they go into labor, to leave ill family members without adequate care, and to return to work right after having a child,” said Katherine Wutchiett, an attorney at Legal Aid at Work, a San Francisco nonprofit.
High- and middle-wage earners, who could afford a pay cut, have tapped into the program at four times the rate of the lowest-paid workers, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.
In 2018, payouts were raised to between 60% and 70% of a worker’s salary. But that boost — still insufficient for many who live paycheck to paycheck — was set to expire this month.
Now Senate Bill 951, written by Sen. María Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), extends the increase for two years. In 2025, workers making about $60,000 a year or more will receive 70% of their regular pay for as long as eight weeks. Wages for those making less will be replaced at 90%.
The U.S. is one of only two nations in the world with no national paid family leave program. But California “can now be proud that our state leads when it comes to equity for low-paid workers and families of color,” Durazo said.
The new law deletes a current provision allowing workers who earn more than $145,000 a year to contribute less into the fund. Nonetheless, a legislative analysis calculates that the new funding will not fully offset the roughly $3 billion to $4 billion in expanded benefits.
“No person should fear losing their job by taking time to grieve the death of their loved one,” said Evan Low (D-Campbell), author of a new law giving Californians the right to bereavement leave.
Under Assembly Bill 1949, California employers with five or more workers must allow them up to five days of unpaid, job-protected leave upon the death of a close family member, including a spouse, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, domestic partner or parent-in-law.
No federal law requires bereavement leave, thus leaving it up to employers to make informal arrangements that may not adequately address workers’ need to grieve. Employees can be fired for missing work to attend a funeral.
Opposed by businesses in recent years, a bereavement law became more urgent with more than 97,700 California deaths linked to the virus that causes COVID-19. But beyond the pandemic, Low said, the law will have “a long-lasting impact. We cannot expect people to work at full productivity while they are mourning the death of a loved one.”
The law allows employers to require documentation such as a death certificate, a published obituary or verification from a funeral home.
More than 400,000 farmworkers harvest $51 billion in crops yearly in California fields. Less than 2% belong to a union, far below the 16% level of the state’s workforce.
A new law, Assembly Bill 2183, written by Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), makes it easier to unionize these low-wage workers. Many are undocumented immigrants who speak little English. And they often are unaware of their rights or fearful of retaliation, according to the United Farm Workers, which pushed for the measure.
Under current law, union elections, usually held on growers’ properties, are supervised by the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board. The new measure allows farmworkers to vote by mail or fill out a ballot card to be dropped off at the board.
Western Growers, an agribusiness association, said the law overturns “the right of farmworkers to a state-supervised secret ballot election.” A provision allowing union representatives to help fill out workers’ ballots will lead to “a relentless campaign of union pressure and harassment,” the group predicts.
The UFW argues that the measure levels the playing field between workers and employers, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2021 ruled that landowners have a right to keep union organizers off their property.
Similar “card check” bills were vetoed by Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year. Newsom also planned to veto AB 2183 for “lack[ing] critical provisions to protect the integrity of the election.”
But a stirring 24-day, 335-mile march by farmworkers in August from Delano to Sacramento, reprising Cesar Chavez’s historic 1966 march, ratcheted up pressure on the reluctant governor. And President Biden endorsed the bill, declaring, “Farmworkers worked tirelessly and at great personal risk to keep food on America’s tables during the pandemic. … The least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union.”
Newsom signed the bill after legislators agreed to future amendments that nonetheless preserve the key card-check provision. The law expires in five years.
For more than a decade, the Service Employees International Union, one of the nation’s largest, has sought to organize low-wage workers at McDonald’s and other fast-food chains with its “Fight For $15 and a union” campaign.
A new law, Assembly Bill 257, sponsored by the SEIU, would set a bold precedent with a 10-member Fast Food Council to regulate wages, hours and working conditions across chains with at least 100 outlets nationwide. The first-of-its kind body would include worker delegates, industry representatives and state officials.
But corporate giants, including In-N-Out Burger, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Starbucks, backed by the California Chamber, have collected a million signatures for a 2024 referendum to overturn the measure and persuaded a judge to delay its implementation.
Should the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act — known as the Fast Recovery Act — survive, the council could raise wages as high as $22 an hour. It could enact health, safety and discrimination standards in an industry plagued with complaints over wage theft, sexual harassment and failure to protect workers from COVID-19.
The approach resembles European sectoral bargaining but marks a sharp departure from U.S. custom in which unions normally target just one business at a time.
The law’s preamble asserts “the fast food sector has been rife with abuse, low pay, few benefits, and minimal job security, with California workers subject to high rates of employment violations.” It adds that “existing enforcement and regulatory mechanisms have proved inadequate.”
Although labor unions argue that the law would give workers “a voice on the job” in the absence of collective bargaining, industry groups contend it would lead to higher menu prices and, for workers, reduced hours or layoffs.
Corporate lobbyists succeeded in killing early provisions that would have made corporate chains jointly responsible with franchisees for wage theft and other violations and allowed the council to regulate shift scheduling and sick leave.
Residential construction workers traditionally earn less than workers on commercial projects with government funding, which must pay “prevailing” — usually union-scale — wages. Two new laws, Senate Bill 6 and Assembly Bill 2011, require those higher wages on affordable housing projects in corridors previously zoned for commercial use.
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