With every new year, comes new laws. Dozens of bills signed by the governor during 2020 clicked into effect on January 1 and are now the law of the land in California. Here are a few key items.
Work and Employment
Workplace COVID-19 Warnings
Workplace outbreaks have ballooned, becoming one of the most frequent points of pandemic spread. A new law attempts to stem the problem by establishing clear statewide mandate for how workers must be informed of exposure. Employers must now send a written notification to all workers of potential exposure within one business day of the exposure being identified, and provide that document in English and any appropriate alternate language.
Expanded Family Leave
This new provision allows employees of businesses with as few as five employees to benefit from 12 weeks of protected leave to care for sick family members. It also expands the relationships that qualify to cover unmarried domestic partners, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, and parents-in-law.
Minimum Wage Increase
All California businesses with 26 or more workers must now pay a minimum wage of $14 per hour. Businesses with 25 or fewer workers will now pay a minimum of $13. This is part of an annual ratcheting up of the minimum wage that began in 2016 and will conclude in 2022 with wages at $15. In Los Angeles County, the minimum for large businesses was raised to $15 last year, and will be raised to that level for small businesses on July 1, 2021.
Underrepresented Members of Boards of Directors
All publicly held corporations headquartered in California will need to have at least one person on their board of directors who “self-identifies as Black, African American, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Native Hawaiian, or Alaska Native, or who self-identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.”
Protections for Incarcerated Transgender Individuals
Individuals who identify as transgender, intersex, and gender-nonconforming in California prisons will now be housed according to their gender identity and where they feel they will be safest. Corrections officers are also required to use names and pronouns specified by the incarcerated person. The law seeks in particular to address a high rate of assaults suffered by trans women previously housed in men’s prisons.
Criminal Justice Reform
Defendants in California will have more tools to raise challenges of racial bias in criminal proceedings. If the defendant can demonstrate discrimination by lawyers, judges, or jurors or can present evidence of systemic bias in convicting or sentencing persons of a particular race, they may be able to seek redress.
Inmate Firefighters Able to Earn Expungement
California’s worsening wildfires have often been contained by fire crews made up of incarcerated individuals. This law, now in effect, would allow some of those individuals to parlay their service to the community as firefighters into early termination of probation, parole, or other supervision once they are released. That clears the way for them to join civilian fire departments, something previously blocked. Individuals convicted of violent felonies or sex offenses are not eligible for the program, and an individual’s expungement is at the court’s discretion.
Expanded Mental Health Parity
Previously, insurance companies were only required to cover treatment associated with nine specific mental health issues, and could deny coverage of others. Now, any treatment deemed “medically necessary” for mental health and substance abuse concerns must be covered by insurance.
Generic Prescription Drug Distribution
Under this new law, the California Health and Human Services Agency will enter partnerships with drug manufacturers to make prescriptions more affordable. State agencies will deliver a report in July detailing if a “viable pathway” exists for the state to produce or distribute certain drugs or types of insulin more cheaply than what’s currently available.
Prohibition of Predatory Student Loans
Institutions that issue student loans face new regulations designed to protect borrowers. The new law requires timely posting and processing of payments, applying overpayments in whatever way is in “the best financial interested of a student loan borrower,” and requires that lenders provide specialized training to make sure that borrowers fully understand what they are signing up for when they take out a loan. If a borrower suffers damages due to a lender skirting the rules or engaging in “unfair or deceptive practices,” the law also details how the borrower can pursue legal action. Starting on July 1, California will establish a new Student Loan Ombudsman to oversee the industry.
New Consumer Financial Protections
The California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, a body modeled on the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, saw its powers expanded on January 1. A particular emphasis will be put on protecting residents from “pandemic-inspired scams,” which were widespread in 2020.
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