In summary

As we head into the new year, it’s important to take stock of what rights and protections California workers won – and lost.

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By Ken Wang, Special to CalMatters

Ken Wang is the policy associate for the California Employment Lawyers Association, ken@cela.org. CELA advocated for many of the state law protections included in this commentary.

As 2020 draws to a close, ending what is unofficially the longest year on record, California workers are facing more uncertainty than ever. 

While the vaccine rollout may signal light at the end of the tunnel, economic devastation continues to ripple through communities across the state. Despite an initial flurry of legislation, California workers need more bold and urgent action to address a worsening COVID-19 surge and the ongoing threats to fair wages and equitable working conditions. 

As we head into the new year, it’s important to take stock of what rights and protections workers won – and lost – and what battles lie ahead.

At the onset of the pandemic, we saw the federal government pass unprecedented measures to deliver a one-time direct payment to families, provide emergency paid sick and family leave, and bolster unemployment benefits. The state Legislature also responded with urgent measures of its own. Emergency paid sick leave was expanded to nearly all workers, plugging the significant gaps in coverage left by Congress. California workers also gained an easier path to claim workers compensation if they contract COVID-19 while working. And if an infection occurs at work, employers are now required to quickly notify other employees at the worksite and explain what rights and benefits they are entitled to. 

Beyond immediate COVID-19 relief, workers’ rights also advanced in several other important ways. Starting Jan. 1, 6 million more Californians will have access to job-protected Paid Family Leave, ensuring that workers will never have to choose between caring for their family or keeping their job. 

We also made progress toward closing the gender and racial pay gap, as large companies will soon be required to disclose pay data broken down by race, ethnicity, gender and job categories. Finally, whistleblowers will have stronger retaliation protections, as workers will soon have more time to file a claim, and if they prevail, the employer will have to cover their attorneys’ fees.

Despite these important successes, efforts to advance workers’ rights still suffered some significant setbacks. Proposition 22, bankrolled by over $200 million from Uber, Lyft and DoorDash, was passed by voters to systematically exclude a large portion of gig-economy workers from labor law protections under the false promise of better benefits. The Legislature also failed to pass bereavement leave protections for grieving workers even in the face of the staggering toll the pandemic has taken. Moreover, workers in some of the hardest-hit sectors were denied the right to return to their old jobs when the economy recovers. Domestic workers providing critical care work were also denied protections under our health and safety laws. Finally, ambitious efforts to ensure our state’s labor protections could meet the scale of this crisis – such as expanding our paid sick leave laws beyond the meager three days – were quickly stymied.  

As we turn the page on the long COVID-19 winter to a more hopeful spring, California workers should expect more help on the way. On the federal level, the new presidential administration has made clear that defeating the pandemic and rescuing the economy will be its top priority. Congress passed a follow-up relief bill to extend pandemic unemployment benefits and provide a $600 direct payment. However, further recovery efforts may hinge on whether the Democrats retake the Senate.

At the state level, lawmakers must act quickly to ensure that workers will have equitable access to all extended federal benefits. For example, the latest federal relief bill renews the employer tax credit for providing COVID-related sick leave – but does not extend the requirement to actually provide it. Other issues exacerbated by the pandemic, such as the accelerated adoption of worker surveillance at home and at work, must also be tackled. 

A just recovery demands bold action. Lawmakers should address these urgent needs to ensure California emerges from this crisis stronger than ever. 

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