SACRAMENTO — Big issues in the workplace — wages, overtime, time off, working conditions — are also major topics in the state Legislature. And this year, lawmakers delivered some tangible changes that will be felt in the pocketbook.
At the top of the list, of course, is an increase in the minimum wage that swept through Democrat-dominated Sacramento, despite opposition from powerful business interests. But workers didn't get all of their agenda passed into law.
"We were able to improve upon existing protections as well as support workers in a number of new ways, including increasing the minimum wage," said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation. "If you look at this year, compared to over the past decade, it would be hard to argue that there's been a better year for worker legislation."
Many of the latest changes, Smith said, might seem incremental. But all are important, he explained, because "the cumulative effect is to make it harder for employers to violate the rights of workers, which is a good thing."
But skeptics, particularly owners of small companies and their trade groups, worry that the continuing rush of new labor laws is proof that the state and local governments are unfriendly to small business.
"We have a 'gotcha' mentality, and some of these offenses are pretty nebulous," said Ken DeVore, legislative director for the California office of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. "There is a mind-set that businesses are out to screw employees. That they are greedy people sitting on piles of money."
In reality, DeVore said, many of their members, who employ fewer than 10 people, "are not sophisticated when it comes to a lot of the laws."
DeVore conceded that, on their face, many of the labor-backed new laws appear reasonable, such as allowing the state labor commissioner to file a lien for unpaid wages against an employer's real property. "Then they go overboard with amount of fines that employers get," he said. "It's indicative of an underlying hostility to business."
Attitudes toward California's latest dramatic labor-law change — a two-step hike in the minimum wage — are as different as Maria Estrada and Tom Benson.
Estrada, a janitor, earns $8.80 an hour, while her husband, a garment sewer, gets the current $8 minimum. The boost to $9 on July 1 and to $10 an hour on Jan. 1, 2016, "will help us pay for necessities that we can't buy without a just salary," the 47-year-old mother of three said in Spanish. "With more money, we can move to a better place with lower rent" than their Pico Union apartment.
Tom Benson, 67, owns Bud's Beach Cities, a car upholstery shop in Signal Hill. He said he sympathizes with Estrada and other minimum-wage workers. But he believes they are being fooled.
"If you raise the minimum wage, it does not improve their standard of living," Benson said. "It just raises prices, and the only long-term benefit goes to the government, which collects the tax revenues."
An increase in the minimum wage, he said, pushes up all other wages, even relatively high ones, and boosts the cost of workers' compensation insurance and payroll taxes.
The hike in the minimum wage, Estrada, Benson and others agree, is the most prominent of dozens of new laws. They include laws that will:
• Create a bill of rights and provide overtime for certain in-home workers, such as personal attendants for the sick, disabled and elderly;
• Ban employers from threatening to report workers to immigration authorities if they seek payment of legally due wages or have other valid labor complaints;
• Prohibit employers from forcing outdoor employees to work during required "recovery periods" intended to prevent sunstroke.
New laws also guarantee that victims of crime can get time off to appear in certain court proceedings involving violent crime, domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault. At companies with more than 50 people, full-time employees who volunteer as reserve police officers and volunteer firefighters can get temporary leaves of up to 14 days a year for training.
Labor-related bills that didn't pass this year include:
• A proposal that would have fined large employers for each worker who doesn't get company-provided health insurance and, instead, receives coverage from the state Medi-Cal program for low-income residents;
• A bill that would have expanded an employee appeal process for workplace safety violations.
The Legislature's prolific passage of new workplace laws could have had an even bigger effect on businesses, the National Federation of Independent Businesses lobbyist DeVore said. He credited Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown "for kind of being the adult in the room" by letting lawmakers know early that he doesn't support a bill and by vetoing other measures opposed by business.
The governor, said DeVore, "is rational."