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California Legislation to Watch in 2021: Workers’ Rights

These bills could lead to safer working conditions and better pay for warehouse employees, farmworkers, and other workers across the state.

Workers in a farm field along California State Route 1 in Nipomo, California, in San Luis Obispo County.
Workers in a farm field along California State Route 1 in Nipomo, CA, in San Luis Obispo County (via Wikimedia)

This article has been updated to include the current status for each bill described below as of September 11, 2021.

California workers and their allies are seeking to pass several major bills this month that would dramatically improve working conditions across the state. This effort comes on the heels of one of the most devastating years for working people, with essential workers risking their lives to earn a paycheck and millions of others facing unemployment. The 12 bills summarized below passed either the state Assembly or state Senate by the first legislative deadline of June 4, 2021. Each must now pass the other chamber by September 10, 2021, and receive approval from the governor to become law.

Several other progressive employment bills have already failed to move forward, despite a Democratic Party supermajority in both chambers. AB 257 would have established a state fast food council, with the power to improve working conditions in the fast food industry by setting industry-wide employment standards. The bill would have also made fast food parent companies liable for the labor violations of their franchises. Unfortunately, AB 257 fell three votes short and failed to move forward this year. Twenty Democrats either voted no or failed to vote for AB 257, including Los Angeles County Assemblymembers Mike Gipson, Autumn Burke, Christina Garcia, Blanca Rubio, and Freddie Rodriguez. Proponents of the bill will try again in January 2022. Other bills that failed to pass include requiring employers to provide backup childcare options (AB 1179), overhauling the state’s worker’s compensation system for on-the-job injuries (AB 1465), and an expansion of paid sick leave (AB 995).

A couple workplace bills have already been enacted in 2021. California extended supplemental COVID-19 paid sick leave, which requires employers with 26 or more employees to provide their employees with paid leave if they are unable to work due to COVID-19 symptoms, COVID-19 quarantine, caring for a relative with COVID-19, going to a vaccine appointment, or experiencing vaccine-related side effects. And certain employers, such as hotels, resorts, and large event venues, must now first offer to rehire their former employees laid off during the pandemic, including housekeepers, cooks, waiters, and bartenders.

Here are the major employment bills that are still pending in the state legislature, which must pass by September 10, 2021.

AB 123: Expanded Paid Family Leave

California provides employees with up to eight weeks of paid leave to bond with a new child or to care for a seriously ill family member. However, this wage replacement, which is paid in part through deductions from employees’ paychecks, is fixed at only 60 to 70% of a worker’s recent weekly wages. This shortfall means that low-wage workers often can’t afford to take leave and use the paid family leave program, because it will significantly reduce their income.

AB 123 attempts to correct this problem by raising the wage replacement amount to 90% of workers’ recent weekly wages.

Status: Passed in the Assembly and Senate. Awaiting Governor’s signature.

AB 616: Farmworker Unions

Farmworkers in California face many obstacles when seeking to improve their working conditions through collective action. In fact, at the end of June, the Supreme Court struck down a landmark California law that assisted farmworkers in organizing their coworkers to form a union. Despite the unrelenting efforts of the United Farm Workers, few workers in the agriculture industry have the protections of a union. This is partly because of the unrealistic legal hurdles workers must meet to establish a union in the first place.

This bill would permit agricultural employees to select their union representatives in the same manner as state and local government employees in California. Farmworkers would for the first time have the option of choosing a union through “card check,” where signed ballot cards from a majority of the workers is sufficient to establish a union.  

AB 616 faces significant opposition from the agriculture industry.

Status: Passed in the Assembly and Senate. Awaiting Governor’s signature.

AB 701: Worker Safety in Warehouse Distribution Centers

Corporate giants like Amazon and Walmart are increasingly pushing their warehouse workers past the breaking point, setting brutal work speeds which have resulted in soaring rates of on-the-job injuries and no time even for bathroom breaks. To drive this brutal pace, Amazon tracks each worker’s individual productivity and automatically issues warnings and terminations to workers who fail to meet the Company’s productivity quotas.

AB 701 would protect 250,000 California warehouse workers from injury, including workers at the 32 Amazon distribution centers in Southern California, by prohibiting employers from terminating or disciplining warehouse workers based on unrealistic productivity quotas, such as those that do not allow a worker to take rest periods or that violate other health and safety laws. It also directs Cal/OSHA to establish safety standards for work speeds, recovery time, and repetitive motions in order to minimize injuries in the warehouse distribution industry. The bill would require companies to disclose any work quotas to their workers as well.

As might be expected with any attempt to regulate Amazon and other retailers, this bill faces major opposition, including from the Chamber of Commerce.

Status: Passed in the Assembly and Senate. Awaiting Governor’s signature.

AB 1003: Wage Theft Criminal Liability

Wage theft occurs when an employer fails to pay an employee their full wages. Too often employers steal money from their employees by pocketing employee tips, not paying for all hours worked, paying below the minimum wage, or not paying time and a half for overtime. (If your employer is stealing any of your wages, you can file a wage claim here.)

Wage theft represents a massive amount of theft that occurs in Los Angeles, yet it is not treated as a crime under current law. AB 1003 provides that employers who steal employee wages are subject to criminal consequences, including possible jail time.

Status: Passed in the Assembly and Senate. Awaiting Governor’s signature.

AB 1041: Expanding Definition of Family Leave

California law allows many employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave in any 12-month period to, among other things, care for themselves or a child, parent, grandparent, grandchild, sibling, spouse, or domestic partner. Employees also have the right to take up to three days of paid sick leave per year, which can be used for the same purposes.

AB 1041 would expand who an employee may care for under these leave laws to include ‘any designated person.’ This change removes the need for any formal family connection to exist between the person taking leave and the person they are caring for. 

Status: Passed the Assembly. Failed to pass the Senate. Dead for 2021.

AB 1074: Hotel Worker Retention

Hotels often rely on subcontractors to hire and employ the cleaning, food and beverage, and guest service workers at a hotel. And when the hotel switches subcontractors, this too often means the existing workers are terminated and new workers are brought in at lower wages. 

AB 1074 would ensure that when a new subcontractor is brought in to provide hotel services, it must retain the employees who were employed at that site by the previous subcontractor. The employees must be retained for 60 days and must be offered continued employment if their performance is satisfactory during the 60 days. 

Status: Passed in the Assembly and Senate. Awaiting Governor’s signature.

SB 62: Garment Worker Protection Act

Los Angeles garment employers are notorious for mistreating their employees, who are primarily Latino and Asian immigrants and are paid at the shocking average of $5.15 per hour. (The minimum wage in the City of Los Angeles is $15 per hour for all businesses.) Fashion companies such as Fashion Nova, Windsor, Forever 21, Harley Davidson, Lulu’s, Urban Outfitters, and Charlotte Russe drive these exploitative conditions in Los Angeles, yet hide from liability through layers of subcontractors.

SB 62 would end the garment industry’s current exemption from hourly minimum wage laws and ensure garment workers are paid legal wages for all time spent working, while still allowing for incentive-based bonuses above their legal wage. The bill would also strengthen rules making the fashion company whose brand name is sewn onto the garment jointly liable for any wage violations.

This bill faces significant opposition from the fashion industry and Chamber of Commerce.

Status: Passed in the Assembly and Senate. Awaiting Governor’s signature.

SB 331: Silenced No More Act

In 2018, California banned non-disclosure agreements in settlements over allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination based on sex, where a formal claim has been made to a government agency. This long-overdue law ended a practice used by corporations and powerful men to avoid public accountability and hide serial behavior.

SB 331 extends the prohibition on non-disclosure agreements to settlements involving allegations of discrimination based on race, religion, gender identity, or any other protected class. This bill also prohibits severance agreements that contain non-disclosure clauses covering those same unlawful acts.

Status: Passed in the Assembly and Senate. Awaiting Governor’s signature.

SB 338, SB 700, & AB 794: Port Trucking Bills

Truck drivers operating at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach face rampant wage theft and misclassification as independent contractors. Driver misclassification has also been a major impediment in the transition toward environmentally clean trucks, because misclassified drivers earn low wages and face prohibitively high financing costs to transition to clean vehicles.

  • SB 338 would make companies that hire port trucking companies, such as Amazon and Walmart, jointly liable for tax assessments and health safety violations. This would expand current law that makes the same companies jointly liable for the unpaid wages violations of port trucking companies.
  • SB 700 ensures that port drivers receive unemployment benefits, regardless of whether their port trucking employer has unlawfully misclassified the driver and failed to pay payroll taxes.
  • AB 794 requires that public financing and incentives for port trucking companies to purchase clean trucks only go to companies that treat their drivers fairly as employees.

Status: SB 338 & AB 794 passed both chambers and are awaiting the Governor’s signature.  

SB 700 failed to pass the Assembly.  Dead for 2021.

SB 606: Expanding Cal/OSHA Authority and Enforcement

Cal/OSHA is the California state agency that enforces workplace health and safety rules, including safety measures related to COVID-19. SB 606 would expand the agency’s ability to hold large employers accountable for violations and strengthen worker protections to encourage workers to report unsafe working conditions and prevent employer retaliation.

Status: Passed in the Senate & Assembly. Awaiting Governor’s signature.

Daniel E. Curry is a union-side labor lawyer who represents working people and their unions. He is a partner at the law firm Schwartz, Steinsapir, Dohrmann & Sommers.