Sen. Smallwood-Cuevas Authors Equal Pay, Anti-Retaliation Act
SACRAMENTO – Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles), along with workers and advocates from the California Coalition for Worker Power (CCWP) have announced the introduction of SB 497 – The Equal Pay and Anti-Retaliation Protection Act – that protects workers who report labor violations from being fired, bullied or harassed.
“In this economy, the right for a worker to blow the whistle and report labor and equal pay violations must always be protected. An employer who retaliates against a worker for taking such heroic actions must be held accountable,” said Senator Smallwood-Cuevas. “Our bill will empower workers to break the silence so we can bring law-breaking employers to justice.”
The Equal Pay and Anti-Retaliation Act would allow the Labor Commissioner to presume retaliation has occurred when the employer punishes or terminates a worker within 90 days of the worker’s complaint of wage theft or unequal pay. Current law gives employers a perverse advantage, as workers have a difficult time establishing retaliation in even the most blatant of cases without direct access to employee records. The bill will give employers the opportunity to rebut the presumption by proving their action was not retaliatory, as they are already required to do in cases of sexual harassment or immigrant related retaliation. “Rebuttable presumption” is currently found in many parts of California’s labor-related statutes, but is missing in the core areas of wage and hour violations and equal pay.
“Deliberate policy choices created an economy where workers are too vulnerable, which means deliberate policy choices can fix the power imbalance. State leaders must prioritize actions this year to protect workers from retaliation,” CCWP Co-Chair Alexandra Suh said in a recent CalMatters op-ed.
Threats of retaliation have appalling effects in workplaces where employers maintain an unfair imbalance of power over workers’ jobs and earnings. A recent survey of 1,000 California workers found that the threat of retaliation was enough to stop more than 40 percent of workers from seeking remedy for unjust and illegal conditions. An even greater share of Black and Latinx workers – 55% and 46%, respectively – say the risks of speaking out are too high, making retaliation prevention a critical equity issue. (These findings were corroborated in focus groups with members of CCWP organizations.)
Over the past year, workers have shared stories with CCWP of being intimidated, bullied and even fired for speaking up about workplace violations. They said California must go further to protect workers against retaliation when they speak up.
“After I spoke out against injustices and dangerous conditions, investigators uncovered many wage violations at the car wash where I worked. My employer punished me for encouraging my co-workers to speak to investigators. The bosses reduced my hours and relocated me to another location far from my home. My co-workers say they would suffer mistreatment rather than miss a paycheck. The bosses have all the power and legislators need to change that by passing stronger retaliation protections for workers.” said Anselmo Leyva, a carwash worker in Los Angeles and a member of CLEAN Carwash Worker Center.
Worker advocates say giving workers a fair shot in retaliation proceedings will empower workers to speak up when their rights are violated and have a fighting chance to obtain justice. SB 497 was introduced after a report from the National Employment Law Project revealed an overwhelming prevalence of workplace violations; low rates of violation reporting; high rates of employer retaliation; and frequent unfair and arbitrary firings.
Key findings from the report How California Can Lead on Retaliation Reforms to Dismantle Workplace Inequality include:
- 38% of California workers have experienced a workplace violation.
- Only 10% of those workers reported them to a government agency, and almost half (47%) did not report violations to anyone.
- Of the workers who reported violations to their employer or to a government agency, a majority 54% (116 of 216 respondents) experienced employer retaliation.
- 51% of working Californians said that concern about employer retaliation would influence their decision about whether or not to report a workplace violation in the future.
The California Coalition for Worker Power’s “Our Voice, Our Jobs” campaign has united workers and advocates across the state to push for investments in outreach to workers so they know their rights, and for more uniform enforcement of labor laws to deter retaliation. The campaign is dedicated to education, organizing and policy work to fight against retaliation, which keeps too many workers silenced and allows abuses to continue undeterred by California’s labor laws.
Senator Lola Smallwood Cuevas represents the 28th Senate District, which includes the communities of South Los Angeles, Culver City, West Los Angeles, Century City and Downtown Los Angeles. Senator Smallwood-Cuevas spent more than two decades serving as a labor organizer, civil rights activist and community advocate before her election to the State Senate. She resides in the View Park community of Los Angeles with her family.
The California Coalition for Worker Power is a coalition of worker centers, unions and worker advocacy organizations dedicated to ensuring that every worker in California has the power to come together and improve their work conditions and their communities.
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