Bill would extend worker rights

Times Staff Writer

The California Senate voted Thursday to bar employers from denying promotions or raises to workers who juggle job duties with the demands of caring for children, sick spouses or aging parents.

One of the first such efforts in the country, the measure would add “familial status” to the categories of discrimination banned by the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. That law already protects workers from discrimination based on such factors as disabilities, national origin, marital status, age and sexual orientation.

But as the number of working single parents and two-income households has increased, so have complaints that employers act against workers with caregiving responsibilities, experts say.


Nationally, discrimination lawsuits have increased fourfold over the last decade, according to the UC Hastings Center for Worklife Law. Conflicts between work and family are the worst for lower-paid workers -- many of whom are people of color -- because they are least likely to control their schedules and often face inflexible employer rules, such as mandatory overtime, according to a May 23 report by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Derek Tisinger was passed over for a promotion to captain in the Bakersfield Fire Department after his chief complained that he was taking too many sick days and trading shifts too often in order to raise his three children, of whom he had custody, according to court records.

In one evaluation the chief had written, “I encourage Derek to continue to explore alternative methods of providing child care” so that he could “work, as much as possible, with his assigned crew.”

Tisinger won $75,000 from a jury, but an appeals court threw out the award, ruling that California law did not bar employers from taking parental duties into account.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world, the time I spent with my kids,” Tisinger said Thursday, noting that two are now firefighters and the third just graduated from college. He said he wished the law had been in place when he was passed over in 1995.

“It really sends a bad message to men who want to step up to the plate and do the right thing,” he said of California’s existing law.

SB 836 by Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) passed by a 25-14 vote along party lines, with Democrats in favor. It now goes to the Assembly.

The measure is opposed by the California Chamber of Commerce, which argues that there are enough protections for workers in federal and state laws allowing them to take extended leaves to deal with family issues.

“SB 836 appears to open the door to new mandates on employers to provide modified schedules or leave to accommodate baby-sitting or driving children to soccer practice,” Marti Fisher, a lobbyist for the chamber, wrote in Senate testimony.

“Current employees can be held accountable if their work performance is negatively impacted by too much missed work due, for example, to extended day-care issues,” Fisher wrote.

Lawmakers in New York and Pennsylvania are considering similar measures. Alaska and a handful of municipalities, including Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C., already have them in place.

Joan Williams, a UC Hastings professor who directs the Center for Worklife Law, a research and advocacy center at the San Francisco law school, said her group has documented more than 1,000 cases of family responsibility discrimination nationwide.

“This issue is bubbling up all over,” she said. “There’s a whole generation of women who take for granted that they should be entitled to have careers that they want and that they shouldn’t be penalized for living up to very widely held ideals of motherhood.”

Williams said that because the legal standards are so unclear, employee lawsuits have used 17 different legal arguments in bringing cases. Even some lawyers who represent management favor clarifying the rules so that everyone can know what is permissible, she said.

Also on Thursday, the Senate approved legislation that would:

* Require chain restaurants to post basic nutritional information on menus. That information includes the number of calories and amount of saturated fat, trans fat, carbohydrates and sodium in each item. Daily specials are excluded, as is food sold in schools, vending machines, hospitals and commissaries.

The bill, SB 120 by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), defines chains as restaurants with 10 or more locations. It passed the Senate 22 to 17.

* Require large drug retailers such as chain pharmacies to establish a system for customers to dispose of unused drugs so that they do not spoil the environment.

The bill, SB 966 by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), was prompted by rising concern about reports of prescription drugs in the nation’s waterways. The U.S. Geological Survey found that 80% of streams it sampled in 30 states had measurable amounts of drugs, steroids and reproductive hormones.

The measure passed 21 to 13.