Given the election outcome, there is much uncertainty about the what the future holds for our country. Workers have many reasons to be concerned, particularly given that our President-elect will likely appoint and nominate people hostile to workers’ rights and civil rights to government positions, including to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Supreme Court.
Fortunately, we in California are to some extent shielded from changes in federal laws in situations where there are California laws in effect that offer similar or broader protections. To give some examples:
- A California employee can usually sue for discrimination, harassment, or retaliation based on sex, race, and certain other protected categories under either the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) or under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). The FEHA covers employers with five or more employees for discrimination and retaliation, and one or more employees for harassment, and also allows individual harassers to be sued personally. Title VII applies to employers with fifteen or more employees and does not allow for individual liability. Title VII also contains caps on compensatory and punitive damages based on the size of the employer, while the FEHA has no such limitations.
- The FEHA explicitly prohibits discrimination based on “gender, gender identity, gender expression” and “sexual orientation,” while Title VII does not. The EEOC and a number of federal courts have taken the (logical and just) position that sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination and therefore prohibited under Title VII (as is discrimination against LGBT individuals in general), but there is a risk that with a change in the composition of the federal courts, we could regress in interpretations of federal law. Regardless, LGBT workers in California will remain protected.
- The FEHA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) offer similar protections with respect to disability discrimination. The FEHA is more protective of disabled employees and explicitly states that the ADA serves only as a “floor.”
- The California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) are two leave laws that have significant overlap in their coverage and protections. Again, CFRA offers more protections to California employees, particularly pregnant women who also take pregnancy disability leave.
- California’s Labor Code contains a number of protections regarding minimum wages, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and other employee protections, as does the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The California laws tend to be more protective (for example, providing that most non-exempt employees receive overtime for for all hours over 8 worked in a day, not just for all hours over 40 per week, and also requiring that employees receive meal and rest breaks).
- California has a number of laws that protect whistleblowers, including Labor Code section 1102.5 (a broad statute that protects all types of whistleblowing), Labor Code section 6310 (protecting employees who complain about workplace health and safety issues), and Health and Safety Code section 1278.5 (protecting employees who complain about patient health and safety issues). There are some overlaps with federal whistleblower laws.
As the previous paragraph demonstrates, our laws tend to offer greater protections and additional remedies as compared to federal employment laws. For that reason, most California employees choose to sue under the California laws when possible. In addition, asserting California (and not federal) claims allows employees to file and usually to keep their cases in state courts. There, an employee need only convince nine out of twelve jurors to find in his favor in order to win his case, in contrast to the requirement in federal court that the jury find for him unanimously. Judges in state court are also less likely to grant summary judgment and dismiss employees’ cases, and tend to give lawyers more time to try their cases.
We are fortunate to live where we do. The newly enacted Labor Code section 925 will ensure that employers cannot strip California employees of their substantive rights or force them to litigate/arbitrate their claims in out-of-state forums. Even if the courts and the nominees/appointees of the new administration will interpret federal laws in a manner that is less favorable to employees, California workers can continue to pursue their state claims, and can continue to push for even more progress in California.
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