Calif. on Verge of Enacting Paid Sick Leave and Pro-Temp Worker Laws

SACRAMENTO –California is on the verge of enacting a state-wide paid sick leave law and a second law that extends worker rights and protections to millions of temps and subcontracted workers, a top womens’ rights group and the state labor federation report.

The state legislature cleared both measures in August and sent them to Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who is expected to sign them.

The paid sick leave law would extend at least three days yearly of paid leave to at least 6.5 million Californians who now lack it, says Debra Ness, executive director of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

The law protecting the temps and the subcontracted workers, which the state labor federation co-authored with state lawmakers, would hold the real employer – often a large firm, such as Wal-Mart, that hires subcontractors who in turn employ the temps – liable for wages and working conditions.  Both measures were atop the state fed’s legislative agenda.

When the Golden State’s paid leave law takes effect, “Workers will no longer have to report to work with stomach flu or strep, or risk their paychecks and jobs by staying home to recover or care for a sick child or parent,” Ness added.  It covers all workers in California.

In both cases, California, like other states, is acting to protect workers because the gridlocked U.S. Congress doesn’t.  Hamstrung by a Right Wing-run House GOP majority and Senate GOP filibusters, measures such as paid sick and family leave have gone nowhere.

“The strength of California’s bill is that it would provide near-universal access by providing those protections to the vast majority of workers in the state.  It will let them accrue up to three paid sick days that can be used for their own illnesses, to get medical care or seek assistance related to domestic violence, or to care for ill family members,” Ness said.

The paid sick and family leave law kicks in for workers after 90 days on the job.  The worker earns an hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked, up to three days of leave per year.  “The bill allows flexibility for workers and employers covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and includes anti-retaliation language to protect workers claiming this benefit,” the state fed says.

The California law has one major exception, however, Ness cautioned: Home health care workers, who are among the lowest-paid of all worker groups and who are predominantly women.  The National Partnership and its California allies, including the state labor federation and the California Work and Family Coalition, will lobby lawmakers to close that gap, she said.

The temp workers bill, AB1897, came after court cases involving Wal-Mart spotlighted the problem. California had difficulty enforcing its own wage and hours laws in cases involving warehouse workers who toiled for subcontractors the retail mega-monster hired.

The giant retailer, known for its low pay, lousy benefits, anti-union venom and rampant labor law-breaking, tried to evade responsibility for underpayments by subcontracting ware-house management to other companies.  State judges are now ruling Wal-Mart is responsible, too.  AB1897 would extend that responsibility to all firms that subcontract, use temps, or both.

“By passing  AB1897, the legislature sent a clear message to big corporations that use subcontracted labor: California won’t tolerate the violation of any worker’s basic rights,” state fed spokesman Steve Smith said.  “By holding corporations that use fly-by-night subcontractors and staffing agencies accountable for mistreatment of workers, AB1897 addresses a growing problem in our economy that’s undermining the middle class and fueling a growing gap between the wealthy few and everyone else.”

A state fed fact sheet on the temp and subcontracted workers says many are “low-cost perma-temps” whom agencies hire to do everything from picking onions to making cars.  If the workers speak up for themselves, the real employer – the big firm that hires the agencies and subcontractors – threatens to cut off the contract, a further layer of intimidation.

And the agencies mistreat the workers.  “Subcontracted workers wear hotel uniforms and clean rooms, but are hired by a temporary agency.  When they get cheated out of wages, the hotel denies any responsibility.  Others pack lettuce and onions for years, but are hired through farm labor contractors. When they speak out about working conditions, the company threatens to cut its ties with the contractor so workers will lose their jobs.  When workers look for help, even state enforcement agencies are often uncertain about who the actual employer is and who can be held accountable,” the state fed’s fact sheet says.

“More and more temporary workers bravely step out of the shadows to tell their stories of abuses and demand safety and fairness in the workplace.  Companies like Taylor Farms” – that mistreats workers the Teamsters are trying to organize — “and Wal-Mart are some of the most egregious violators of worker rights, taking advantage of the subcontracting model by shielding their businesses from responsibility to the very workers that make the business run.

“In a subcontracted workplace, workers who are injured or have wages stolen from them are often left to wonder ‘Who’s the boss?’ when employers and subcontractors point the finger at each other instead of respecting workers’ basic rights.  By holding corporations and subcontractors jointly liable when wrongdoing occurs, temporary workers will have a new measure of protection on the job.”

-PAI