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Capitol Alert

New California workplace laws for 2021 tackle COVID outbreaks, family leave, gender pay gap


California workers and businesses have a new slate of laws to become familiar with the start of the new year.

Cal/OSHA now has the ability to shut down a workplace if it exposes workers to an “imminent hazard” related to COVID-19. Workers in smaller companies have access to job-protected family leave. Workers have more time to file a labor complaint to the state. Companies by March will have to provide information to the state about how much they are paying their workers.

Here’s what to know about those laws and more:

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Workplace protection against COVID exposure

Cal/OSHA in November passed emergency rules aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus at workplaces. A new law gives more teeth to those rules, allowing Cal/OSHA to issue an order shutting down a worksite that exposes workers to an “imminent hazard” related to COVID-19.

Cal/OSHA can also issue a citation for serious violations without giving employers a 15-day notice.

The definition of an “imminent hazard” is open to interpretation by officials, said Thu Do, a partner at Gilson Daub law firm.

“It’s essentially at the discretion of an OSHA person going in,” she said.

It’s unlikely that Cal/OSHA will frequently exercise its power to shut down workplaces, said Charles Rondeau, the head of Dordulian Law Group’s workers’ compensation division.

“From the standpoint of economic consideration, you don’t want Cal/OSHA being overly aggressive with the shutdown power,” he said. “There’s also a manpower issue.”

United Farm Workers Director of Alternative Organizing Elizabeth Strater said in an e-mail that the law will be as useful as the willingness and capability of officials to enforce it. Strater’s union has sued to get Foster Farms’ Livingston chicken processing plant to comply with COVID safety rules after a coronavirus outbreak.

The law also requires employers to notify all employees and employers of subcontractors who were at the same worksite as someone who is ordered to self-isolate or has tested positive for COVID-19. Employers need to do so within one business day of finding out about the exposure.

Meanwhile, another law that went into effect in September makes it easier for California workers to file workers’ compensation claims related to COVID-19. The law assumes employees sick with COVID-19 have gotten the virus at work, if they are first responders or certain health care employees or their workplaces experienced an outbreak, unless employers can prove otherwise.

Employers also have only 30 to 45 days to deny a workers’ compensation claim related to COVID-19, compared to 90 days in other cases.

“Because of the presumption, many employers decide not to deny cases they otherwise would,” said Michael Sullivan, a lawyer at Michael Sullivan & Associates. “So we get more claims filed and accepted than would have been the case had the bill not been passed.”

Family leave, gender pay gap, board diversity and wages

Another law going into effect Jan. 1 will provide job-protected unpaid family leave of up to 12 weeks to workers in companies with five or more employees.

The law also now allows workers to take the leave to care for seriously ill siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, adult children and parents-in-law, according to the Legal Aid at Work. Previously, workers could only take the leave to care for their minor children, parents and spouses.

Another law prevents employers from retaliating against employees who are a victim of a crime or abuse and take time off to recover. Employees will need to provide paperwork, such as a police report, a court order or a documentation that “reasonably verifies” that the crime or abuse occurred.

When it comes to pay, companies with 100 or more employees next year will have to provide the Department of Fair Employment and Housing information about how much they are paying their workers, broken down by race, ethnicity, gender and job categories.

And publicly held corporations based in California will need to have at least one director from an underrepresented community — such as Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American or LGBT — by the end of 2021.

Finally, another law now gives workers up to a year to file a claim to the state if they believe their employers retaliated against them for exercising their workplace rights. Workers previously had six months to file a claim.

Also, a quick reminder: A law that went into effect in September gave more leeway for certain industries such as entertainment to hire independent contractors.

And minimum wage in California has gone up to $14 an hour for all employers with 26 or more employees, and $13 an hour for smaller employers. Some cities have higher minimum wages — check your city here.

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