A number of new bills and amendments to California law introduced last year took effect on January 1 of the new year. Some, like the minimum wage increase, have received a hefty amount of media attention and deal specifically with the conditions of employment. For instance, the “recovery period” provisions of SB 435 require employers of outdoor working employees to allow “rest in the shade for a period of no less than five minutes.”
Other new laws effective this year specifically address matters involving employment discrimination. Stalking victims, employees with arrests but no prior convictions, and crime victims will all receive expanded protections under new laws. Also, two important additions to California laws involve a new definitions of sexual harassment and a new protected class for the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
1. Stalking Victims Added to FEHA
More protection is in store for stalking victims in California. According to a new amendment to the California FEHA, SB 400, employee victims of stalking are protected both from discrimination in the workplace and from retaliation as a result of complaining about or alleging discrimination.
Millions of Americans are stalked each year, and stalking can detrimentally effect the workplace. Employees dealing with a stalkers may miss work or need extra time off to address issues related to stalking, such as court proceedings or litigation. Prior to the amendment, for many Californians this meant putting a good job at risk. With the new amendment in place, however, stalking victims gain much needed job protection as well as legal recognition of their status as victims.
Stalking victims also have the right to request reasonable accommodation now that the amendment has been added. Victims may need to have their identity protected at work, be removed to a different office or escorted when outside the building. All these solutions are reasonable accommodations, and if requested, employers should comply. The new amendment ensures that employers must make reasonable accommodations unless doing so would cause undue hardship.
2. Criminal Background Inquiries Curbed
An interesting study in the news recently reported that nearly half of African-American males and 40% of White American males have been arrested by age 23. This level of contact with the criminal justice system by so many Americans means that criminal background checks could be a problem in the hiring process as well as in other areas of employment such as promotions.
In light of these facts, a new California bill, AB218, taking effect this year, will curb the extent of criminal background checks in the employment application process. Under the amendment, employers will be prohibited from inquiring about criminal convictions that have been judicially dismissed until after an employer has confirmed that the applicant meets minimal job requirements and qualifications.
Laws already in place protect workers from inquires regarding arrests that did not result in a conviction. Not only are employers prohibited from asking for this information verbally, they are also prevented from inquiring in writing. The new amendment aims to lessen the impact of hiring discrimination based on past criminal convictions, and open doors to employment for the growing number of individuals exposed to the criminal justice system.
3. Definition of Sexual Harassment Receives Revision
Another California law set to take effect in 2014 addresses new perspectives in sexual harassment. Specifically, the law aims to check discrimination not motivated by sexual desire. The new law applies mainly to situations of same-sex discrimination and provides clarity for courts deciding such issues.
Legislators feared confusion after a California employment discrimination case seemed to require that plaintiffs prove harassers were motivated by sexual desire before a claim of same-sex harassment could be viable. The bill, signed into law by Governor Brown late last summer, will add language to existing sexual harassment law to make it clear that sexual desire is not a prerequisite for sexual harassment liability.
4. Military and Veteran Status Added to List of Protected Classes
Military and veteran status becomes the latest basis of discrimination to receive prohibition under California’s FEHA this year. The addition aims to protect military members and veterans from discrimination as a result of stigmas about poor veteran job performance and attendance. The new law may even help reduce high unemployment rates common among veterans in California and across the nation.
While some laws, existing prior to the amendment, protected military members from discrimination, much of it did not include specific protection for veterans. By adding military and veterans to the list of protected categories in FEHA, veterans, too will have the benefit of filing charges with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and can now benefit from protections against association discrimination and retaliation as well as from discrimination in all aspects of the employment process.
5. No Discrimination Against Crime Victims
Starting this year, California will expand employment discrimination protection for victims of crime. Since the effects of crime can be felt at work, crime victims often need time off to attend to their unique circumstances. Under new state law provisions, employers must provide crime victims with reasonable accommodations, including time off from work to appear in court proceedings or to obtain relief in court.
Specifically, Section 230.5 has been added to the California Labor Code to protect victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and a handful of felonies and serious crimes. The law prevents retaliation, termination and discrimination based on an employee’s status as crime victim.
Protecting the Rights of Californians
Each of these new laws and amendments carry a particular significance to employees. Overall, they protect the rights of Californians to be treated equally and fairly in the workplace, regardless of present circumstances or social characteristics. As always, it’s a good idea to stay abreast of the changing landscape of employment discrimination law, to remain aware of employee rights and well-prepared to legally address violations thereof.