California labor interests hit a new high last year with the amount of legislation pushed across the finish line in Sacramento. This year they are doubling down on stalled proposals and pressing to expand benefits in areas that worry agricultural employers.

The bill attracting the most attention during the “hot labor summer” of 2023 was a proposal to provide unemployment pay to union workers on strike for more than two weeks. Senator Anthony Portantino of Burbank pitched the idea late in the session last year in the wake of several protracted strikes. Gov. Gavin Newsom eventually vetoed the measure, citing its cost and the $20 billion unemployment insurance fund deficit.

Portantino has revived the effort through Senate Bill 1116 and is again partnering with the influential California Labor Federation. He continues to stress to colleagues that families struggle to put food on the table and pay rent during long-term strikes.

Pressed about exacerbating state unemployment debt, Portantino said he hopes the bill would stimulate more conversations about establishing long-term solvency for the fund.

“The sheer percentage of workers this would apply to in the long run is relatively small, given the number of overall workers that benefit from unemployment insurance,” he said.

The Senate approved the bill last month with five fewer votes than last year. Four Democrats sided with Republicans in voting against it, while five others abstained. More than 100 associations are opposing it, including numerous agricultural groups.

Dave CorteseSen. Dave Cortese, D-Silicon ValleySen. María Elena Durazo of Los Angeles, a former labor leader and coauthor of SB 1116, has made her own attempt at expanding unemployment benefits through SB 1434. The bill proposed a large increase to the taxable wage base while loosening eligibility standards. Farm groups feared it would increase taxes on employers. Durazo buckled and pulled the measure ahead of its first hearing.

Another labor bill that fell by the wayside this year pushed for “the right to disconnect.” AB 2751 would have prevented employers from emailing, texting or calling workers outside of business hours, except during emergencies. The California Chamber of Commerce called the bill “a step backwards for workplace flexibility” and said it failed to account for the uniqueness of industries like agriculture.

Farm employers have faced increased scrutiny over protecting workers from extreme heat. California has the nation’s strictest regulations for outdoor heat illness protection and is on the verge of enacting new rules for indoor heat, but Senator Dave Cortese of Silicon Valley is pushing for more.

Under SB 1299, Cortese is proposing to make it easier for farmworkers to claim worker’s compensation for heat-related injuries. The state would presume that a worker’s comp claim is true if the employer is unable to show it complied with the rules. 

Leading a broad coalition of agriculture and business groups in opposition to the measure, CalChamber is calling the bill unnecessary since the “vast majority” of claims are approved, often quickly. Policy advocate Ashley Hoffman pointed out that previous bills proposing such presumptions have failed in the absence of clear and convincing evidence that they are necessary. 

Also in opposition, insurance companies argue that workers at dairy farms, for example, could claim an injury that happened at home up to a month earlier.

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Assembly Bill 2754, meanwhile, has taken a more targeted approach. It initially proposed to expand liability and for wages and worker’s comp for agricultural exporters, along with other businesses along the supply chain. Several agricultural organizations opposed the broad language and the author, Assemblymember Anthony Rendon of Lakewood, limited the bill to certain port drayage motor carriers and their customers. CalChamber maintains opposition while the California Farm Bureau shifted to neutral.

While employers may worry about fielding more injury claims, they have also grown weary of PAGA lawsuits. Asm. Ash Kalra of San Jose is proposing to expand the Private Attorneys General Act.

Backed by the labor federation, Kalra’s AB 2288 would allow courts to issue injunctive relief during lawsuits. An employer would have to quickly remediate violations while the lawsuit plays out, such as cutting a paycheck for a worker who claims wage theft. 

Lawyers are at the center of another bill. The U.S. has long upheld the legal principle known as attorney-client privilege. Asm. Evan Low of Campbell wants to apply the same confidentiality protections to the relationship between workers and union officials.

Opponents argue it would create an uneven playing field and would jeopardize investigations into safety problems and harassment allegations. While AB 2421 is limited to public sector jobs, farm groups worry about the precedent it would set. 

Another potential precedent is in AB 2738. It would expand the enforcement authority for public prosecutors pursuing labor violations, with the specific aim of protecting contract agreements for production crews at live events. Business advocates charge that it would incentivize meritless lawsuits.

Civil rights complaints are also on the radar for lawmakers this year. Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley hopes to expand the statute of limitations for complaints. Most personal injury claims currently have a two-year window, while property claims have three and those against government entities have six months. 

Skinner initially wanted to bump the window to 10 years but since has trimmed it to seven. Opponents argue evidence would not hold up well over such an extended period. According to a business coalition, “memories will fade. Former employees will change jobs, retire or, in some cases, pass on.”

As with many labor bills, the legislature has maintained a steady focus on family leave over the years. The next proposed expansion would lower the threshold for job-protected leave to incorporate small businesses. Currently companies with 25 or more employees must offer job-protected leave; the bill would drop that to five and broaden the reasons to allow workers to tend to a family member who is a victim of a crime.

CalChamber counters that employees can already tend to non-family victims of violence and benefit from several other family leave protections.

AB 2499 and the other surviving bills have advanced out of their house of origin and will soon be up for debate on the other side of the Capitol.

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