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SB 497 Passes Senate Labor Committee

For Immediate Release

April 12, 2023

Contact: Mike Roth, 916.813.1554

Maria Elena Jauregui, 818.355.5291 (Spanish-language)

Senate Labor Committee Votes to Crack Down on

Employers that Retaliate When Workers Seek Justice

SB 497 (Smallwood-Cuevas) Protects Workers Who Speak Out

Against Unequal Pay & Workplace Abuses

Sacramento, CA – Workers and advocates from the California Coalition for Worker Power (CCWP) today applauded the Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement committee for passing SB 497 (Smallwood-Cuevas). The 4 to 1 vote came after legislators heard from workers in low-wage jobs from across California who told their stories of being harassed, bullied, or fired for reporting unequal pay or wage theft. The Equal Pay and Anti-Retaliation Act would protect workers from retaliation after they report such labor violations.

“Using their power to keep workers in silence is the way unscrupulous employers continue to evade California’s tough-on-paper labor laws,” said CCWP Co-President Alexandra Suh, Executive Director of KIWA. “We applaud the Senate Labor committee members who agreed today that to meaningfully protect workers, we have to shift the balance of power in workplaces.”

“Workers who take risks to come forward and report wage theft, safety hazards, or unequal pay should be supported, not abused,” said CCWP Co-President Sheheryar Kaoosji, Executive Director of Warehouse Worker Resource Center. “SB 497 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 a labor violation or unequal pay. Current law is stacked in favor of employers, as workers have a difficult time establishing retaliation in even the most blatant of cases without direct access to the employer’s 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 immigration-related retaliation and sick leave-related retaliation. The “rebuttable presumption” framework 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.

Addressing the Committee was Lili (David) Zhang, who described his experience of retaliation: “I’m originally from China and immigrated to the US. One of my first jobs was as a sushi chef in a restaurant named SUGOI in San Francisco. My employer constantly paid me late, stole tips, and never paid my overtime hours. After I approached my boss multiple times to ask about being paid properly, my work hours were reduced significantly, down to two days a week. It made it so hard for me to survive that I had no choice but to quit the job. During the time when I was unemployed after being forced to quit my job, I was struggling to meet the balance with insurance and rent to pay and food to purchase. It was a really hard time for me and my family.”

Threats of retaliation have chilling 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 percent and 46 percent, respectively - say the risks of speaking out are too high, making preventing retaliation a critical equity issue. (These findings were corroborated in focus groups with members of CCWP organizations.)

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The California Coalition for Worker Power (CCWP) 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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