By Sheri Williams
Union activists were busy at the state capitol this year, succeeding in drives to pass new laws to empower workers and protect union families.
Here are five of the most significant wins, and how they will make life better for working people.
Greater power for family leave: The pandemic brought into stark reality how fragile working people are to illness. Essential workers remained on the job throughout the coronavirus crisis, risking their lives and their family’s safety to help others. Oftentimes, when those workers fell ill, they found themselves without the ability to take needed time off despite emergency regulations—protections that were set to expire.
State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, the former head of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, helped fix that problem with Senate Bill 951. California has long offered workers family leave pay to provide time to recover from sickness, bond with a baby or take care of a family member in need. But that compensation is a fraction of their normal pay, making it nearly impossible for many workers to take advantage of the program. Durazo’s new measure, which goes into law next year, will bump the rate of wage replacement up to 70 to 90 percent of regular pay by 2025.
Another bill on family leave, Assembly Bill 1949 by Evan Low, also gives workers more rights. This measure expands the definition of “family” to include chosen family—meaning workers can use their family leave to care for any loved one they choose, regardless of biological relationships. Low and those supporting the law point out that in California, families come in all varieties and the new law will give greater flexibility and fairness to LGBTQ+ employees and others. While corporate interests tried to argue that workers would exploit the law, union members fought back and won its passage. The new measure also gives a week of unpaid leave after the death of a close relative, parent, child or spouse.
Adding salary ranges to job postings: California companies looking to hire new workers will now have to post salary ranges with the job description. This change is a crucial step to help curb wage disparities for women and people of color, who are often paid less than other candidates for the same work. Authored by state Senator Monique Limon, the bill helps increase wage transparency. It will also require staffing agencies to collect demographic data so that pay disparities between contractors and full-time employees can be better tracked and understood.
Emergency consideration for workers: California employers can no longer retaliate against workers who refuse to work during an emergency. With natural disasters such as wildfires too common in the state, this measure is meant to protect vulnerable workers who are forced to come into the job when dangerous conditions exist. Senate Bill 1044 doesn’t apply to those who are expected and usually work during emergencies, such as healthcare workers, but instead prevents unscrupulous employers in non-essential industries from taking advantage of workers.
Rights for fast food workers: One of the biggest wins for Labor this year was the FAST Act, Assembly Bill 257, which grants new and important rights to fast food workers. The bill creates a statewide council that will help set working conditions and pay for fast food restaurants, where jobs are predominately filled by people of color who often live paycheck to paycheck. Though Gov. Gavin Newsom said the bill “empowers our workers,” corporate interests are now attempting to undo the important law through a statewide ballot initiative and have donated more than $13 million to that effort, but workers are determined to fight.