About Us  |  About Cheetah®  |  Contact Us

Package of proposed California laws would guarantee protections for immigrant workers

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The Teamsters are urging California Governor Edmond G. Brown, Jr., to sign a three-bill package of legislation designed to protect immigrant workers who engage in protected activity from retaliation by their employers. The proposed laws individually got the final nod from the California Legislature last week. The California Labor Federation and the National Employment Law Project were both sponsors of the legislative package.

Extortion. On September 9, the state legislature passed AB 524, which would amend Section 519 of the California Penal Code with regard to immigrants. If enacted, the new law would clarify existing law to provide that a threat to report the immigration status (or suspected status) of the threatened individual, his or her relative, or a member of his or her family, may induce sufficient fear to constitute extortion.

Wage theft. On the following day, the legislature finalized AB 263, which would expand existing law to prohibit an employer from retaliating or taking adverse actions against employees or applicants because they have engaged in protected conduct, including written or oral complaints by employees that they are owed unpaid wages. Immigrant workers are particularly vulnerable to wage theft, and the legislation acknowledges that such workers are the most frequent victims of wage theft.

If enacted, the new law would provide that employees who were retaliated against or otherwise subjected to adverse action are entitled to reinstatement and reimbursement for lost wages. Those who violate the new provisions would be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 per violation. It would also be unnecessary to exhaust administrative remedies or procedures in the enforcement of certain specified provisions.

Other immigration-related practices. AB 263 also would make it unlawful for an employer or any other person to engage in, or to direct another person to engage in, an unfair immigration-related practice against a person for the purpose or with the intent of retaliating against any person for exercising a right protected under state labor and employment laws or under a local ordinance applicable to employees, as specified. A rebuttable presumption would be created that that an adverse action taken within 90 days of the exercise of a protected right is committed for the purpose or with the intent of retaliation.

If enacted, the bill would create a civil action by an employee or other person subjected to an unfair immigration-related practice and authorize a court to order appropriate government agencies to suspend certain business licenses held by violating parties for prescribed periods based on the number of violations. The court would also be required to consider prescribed circumstances in determining whether a suspension of all licenses is appropriate.

The new law would further prohibit any person acting on behalf of an employer from making, adopting, or enforcing any rule, regulation, or policy preventing employees from disclosing information to a government or law enforcement agency, and from retaliating against employees for such disclosures. The bill would also expand the prohibited actions to include preventing an employee from, or retaliating against an employee for, providing information to, or testifying before, any public body conducting an investigation, hearing, or inquiry. Violators would be guilty of a misdemeanor; entities that violate these provisions that are corporations or limited liability companies would be subjected to civil penalties not exceeding $10,000 for each violation.

Under existing law, an employer or prospective employer, with the exception of certain financial institutions, is prohibited from obtaining consumer credit reports for employment purposes except with regard to specified positions, including among others a position in the state Department of Justice, a managerial position, or a position that involves regular access to $10,000 or more of cash. The new law would bar employers from discharging employees or in any manner discriminating, retaliating, or taking any adverse actions against them because they update or attempt to update their personal information, unless the changes are directly related to the skill set, qualifications, or knowledge required for the job.

Attorney discipline. On September 10, the California Legislation also approved a bill that should be on the radar of every attorney in the state. Among other provisions that apparently work in tandem with provisions already discussed above, SB 666 would make it cause for suspension, disbarment, or other discipline for any member of the California State Bar to report, or threaten to report, the suspected immigration status of witnesses or parties to civil or administrative actions, or their family members, to a federal, state, or local agency because they exercise or have exercised a right related to their employment.

“Employers should be on notice that with these bills, retaliating against workers who stand up for their basic rights will have serious consequences,” said Art Pulaski, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the California Labor Federation. “These new protections are vital to protecting all workers who are afraid to report these abuses. As long as unscrupulous employers can exploit low-wage immigrant workers with impunity, all workers suffer.”

“For too long, employers have used the threat of deportation to silence workers who are victims of stolen wages, unsafe working conditions, and abuse on the job,” said Eunice Cho, an attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “Immigrant workers are more likely to suffer from abuses such as wage theft and work in low-wage industries. We celebrate the legislature’s support for protecting the rights of some of the most vulnerable workers in the state.”