By Tiffany Stecker
Laws to ban sexual-harassment gag orders, place restrictions on warehouse-worker quotas, and enact stringent enforcement for workplace safety violators will take effect next month in California, setting a new layer of workforce compliance for employers to follow.
With Covid-19 at the forefront of Californians’ minds, state lawmakers in 2021 passed relatively few labor bills, said Benjamin Ebbink, a partner with Fisher & Phillips LLP in Sacramento.
“Normally we have 20 or 25 really big, significant bills, and this year we don’t,” Ebbink said. “It’s pretty much a down year.”
Among the most noteworthy: One new law will bar employers from stopping dismissed workers from talking about harassment allegations after they leave their job (S.B. 331).
The mandate “imposes significant new restrictions on severance and settlement agreements,” Karen Tynan, an attorney with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. in Sacramento, said in an email.
Under that law, an employer must give an employee or former employee at least five days to consider a severance agreement. Many employers are used to a 21-day period, Ebbink said. The employer also must tell the worker about his or her right to consult an attorney about the severance agreement.
Another new law prevents
Managers who impose quotas or other production metrics in their workplace may want to document that their standards don’t infringe on employees’ rights to meal and rest breaks and a safe work environment, Tynan said.
And starting Jan.1, the state’s workplace safety regulator Cal/OSHA will have “enterprise-wide” citation authority, meaning inspectors can cite employers for violations at multiple locations without having to inspect every place (S.B. 606). Cal/OSHA also will have additional subpoena power during investigations under the new law.
The law creates a new category of “egregious” violations that will apply per employee affected, Ebbink said. That could lead to much higher penalties in cases where bosses ignore Covid-19 safety rules.
“It’s just another reason to make sure you’re following this stuff to a T, don’t give them any reason to say this is an egregious violation,” Ebbink said.
Other laws taking effect on Jan. 1, 2022:
California’s minimum wage will increase to $15 per hour for employers with more that 25 workers, and $14 per hour for places with 25 workers or less.
Lawmakers could revive several efforts related to family leave that didn’t advance in 2021.
They include a bill allowing employees to designate one non-family member who could take leave from work if the employee gets sick (A.B. 1041); another to protect workers caring for children against workplace discrimination (A.B. 1119); and a third to allow employees up to 10 unpaid days off following the death of a spouse, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, or domestic partner (A.B. 95).
Labor advocates are pushing for a six-month extension of the two-week supplemental Covid-19 sick leave that expired Sept. 30, despite an absence of federal funding to help pay for such a policy. The extension would allow for retroactive claims back to Oct. 1.
As California comes out of the pandemic, “we have to sort of restructure our workplaces in a much more fair and equitable way,” said Mariko Yoshihara, legislative counsel and policy director with the California Employment Lawyers Association.
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By Tiffany Stecker