COVID-19 workplace protections, minimum wage raise and criminal justice reform
NEW year, new laws.
On Jan. 1, a flurry of new laws came into effect in California. Some of these laws were set in motion years ago and were simply on the docket, but many of these new laws reflect the unique trials and tragedies brought forth the previous year: especially, the coronavirus pandemic, the economic fallout of the pandemic, wildfires and criminal justice.
The pandemic has especially influenced the new set of laws, which seek to quell outbreak surges in places like Los Angeles County, which has experienced increases of in-person gatherings and record-shattering increases in infection, hospital capacity and death due to COVID-19.
Hundreds of bills were signed into law and scheduled to take effect in 2021 — such as new protections for student loan borrowers that’ll go into effect in July — but many of them won’t be enacted until later this year.
Here are five of the most crucial laws that went into effect on the first day of 2021.
AB 685: COVID-19 workplace protections
Employers are now required by law to notify workers of potential exposures to COVID-19 in the workplace and report any outbreaks to public health officials within 48 hours of an outbreak.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many employers have opted to provide written notification of outbreaks or exposures in the workplace for ethical reasons; this law simply makes that a legal obligation.
These written notifications must be detailed and be distributed to any worker who was in physical contact with the “qualifying individual” (the infected worker) within the “infectious period.”
This also gives more power to Cal/OSHA to enforce pandemic safety violations and protect workers. If a workplace is found to violate pandemic protocol, Cal/OSHA has the authority to shut it down.
Recent outbreaks in vulnerable areas like the Central Valley and Southern California — where ICU capacity remains at 0% — highlight the impact of employers who were slow to report workplace outbreaks.
SB 1159: COVID-19 workers’ compensation
Workers who contract COVID-19 on the job will now more easily become eligible for workers’ compensation benefits with SB 1159, which makes it easier for COVID-19 to be classified as an occupational injury if a worker catches the virus at work.
Employees who suffer illness or death from COVID-19 between July 6, 2020 and Jan. 1, 2023 may be entitled to compensation. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many Californians were allowed to work from home, but millions of Californians who are deemed “essential workers” — including health care workers, retail and restaurant workers and deliverers, for example — have had to return to the workplace.
Among health care workers, there have been more than 67,000 confirmed positive cases and 250 deaths in California, as of Dec. 27.
Minimum wage increase
Per a law that was signed by former California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016, employers must now pay a minimum wage of $14 per hour, a dollar increase from last year’s hourly minimum wage. Workplaces with fewer than 26 workers are now required to pay a minimum wage of $13.
The law that Brown signed in 2016 made it so that the state’s mandatory hourly minimum wage would increase every year until 2022 when it reached $15 an hour. Gov. Gavin Newsom decided to maintain the law, arguing that it could help families and individuals who work hourly jobs who have financially struggled throughout the pandemic.
“Not allowing this increase to go forward will only make life harder for those Californians who have already borne a disproportionate share of the economic hardship caused by this pandemic,” Newsom said in a statement.
AB 2992: Expanded work leave for crime victims
Victims of crime or abuse that has caused physical or mental injury are now eligible for job-protected leave. Specifically, these new protections involve individuals who have been victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking as well as any employee whose immediate family member is deceased as a direct result of any of these crimes.
AB 2992 imposes new limitations on employers from unfairly discriminating against or discharging employees who are victims of crime or abuse.
With domestic abuse on the rise as families continue to be sequestered at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this new law aims to protect victims. CA State Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) authored the bill as a way to “create a safe haven for survivors who need time to recover and get to safety following traumatic crimes, without the risk of losing their job.”
SB 1383: Expanded family leave
California was the first state in the country to institute a paid family leave guarantee, and this law expands on that landmark legislation. SB 1383 would expand the types of situations that would be eligible if an employee at a small business needs to take time off to care for a loved one: domestic partners, grandparents and grandchildren, siblings and parents-in-law.
This law also expands existing protections to businesses that employ five people or more, which opens up paid family benefits to millions more Californians — a timely expansion during a time when more people, especially women, are taking time off work to care for family members.
CA Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) authored the bill that passed in 2020 and noted that for years, all employed Californian workers pay into the paid family leave program (through deductions) but many don’t take advantage of it for fear of being discharged from their jobs.
According to the First 5 California Commission, 40% of California workers in 2020 were at risk of losing their jobs if they took leave to care for a newborn or a sick loved one because their employer was too small.