Editor’s note: As 2023 draws to a close, The Signal is presenting CalMatters’ wrap-up stories on some of the key bills that reached the governor’s desk at the close of the 2023 legislative session. Here’s the CalMatters summary of Senate Bill 497, which is intended to prevent employer retaliation against employees who file wage claims.
By Alejandra Reyes-Velarde
Senate Bill 497 will mandate that the California Labor Commissioner’s office and state courts assume employers are illegally retaliating if they take certain disciplinary actions against a worker who in the prior 90 days has made a wage claim or a complaint about unequal pay.
Employers will be able to rebut the retaliation assumption by showing that there is a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the employee discipline.
Who Supports It
The California Coalition for Worker Power, Equal Rights Advocates, and the National Employment Law Project cosponsored the bill, saying in a statement: “A majority of California workers who report violations to their employer or the government experience retaliation. When workers are too afraid to speak up, wage theft, unequal pay, and workplace hazards are allowed to flourish, making our communities less safe and equitable.”
Who Is Opposed
A coalition of employer organizations, including the California Chamber of Commerce, oppose the bill, warning it could subject employers to frivolous claims.
“Courts already take timing into account when evaluating a retaliation claim,” the groups wrote in a statement, adding, “Creating a presumption simply allows claims to proceed that should not be moving forward, which wastes valuable court and litigant resources.”
Why It Matters
Labor activists said retaliation claims are rising as workers gain the courage to speak up about negative workplace conditions, but fear often keeps workers from filing claims. Retaliation complaints awaiting investigation by the state Labor Commissioner’s Office have swelled almost five-fold from 2018 through 2021. By April 2023, the waitlist hit 4,878 claims.
In 2021, just nine out of 237 completed cases were decided in a worker’s favor. The rest were dismissed for lack of evidence.
“California has some of the strongest workplace and equal pay protections in the country,” said Assemblymember Ash Kalra, the San Jose Democrat who presented the bill on behalf of Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, the Los Angeles Democrat who authored it. “However, our strong workplace protections are meaningless if workers are too afraid to speak up when their rights are violated.”
The Governor’s Call
Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Oct. 8 he signed the bill.