New laws protect workers from exploitation

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

The Orange County Employees Association is comprised of about 18,000 workers, many Orange County residents, who work every day to keep our communities safe and healthy.

They provide law enforcement protection, public health services, keep our sewer systems functioning and make sure we have clean water running into our homes.

And just like our grandparents’ generation – when they built the American middle class that was the envy of the world – our members stand together to bargain for fair working conditions and decent pay.

But their role in improving our communities goes beyond their day-to-day work and also beyond collective bargaining for their own families’ security. As part of a coalition of working people across the state, we work to improve conditions for all workers – whether or not they’re part of a union.

This year, working people standing together across California made significant advances on a statewide level in areas that increase worker protections, raise standards in the construction industry and improve transparency in the expenditure of taxpayer funds.

Here are some highlights of the priority legislation sponsored by working people and their unions this year.

Assembly Bill 1509, by Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-Baldwin Park, strengthens protection from retaliation for workers in the subcontracted economy, such as employees working for temp agencies.

As we emerge from the recession, job growth in the temporary economy is rising, introducing risks for workers in these areas. According to a UC Berkeley study, temporary workers are twice as likely to live in poverty, receive food stamps and be on Medicaid as their full-time counterparts. And they’re more vulnerable to abuse because of the tangled web of accountability that comes with working for one company and collecting a paycheck or being supervised by another.

Companies increasingly use temporary and contracted workers to shield themselves, their executives and owners from liability. And the workers employed by those companies often have little recourse if they’re shorted on pay, injured on the job or forced to work in unsafe environments. What’s more, many face retaliation when they speak out.

AB1509 is critical legislation that holds a company liable if its contractors engage in retaliation.

Another labor-sponsored bill adds protections for grocery store workers, requiring that grocery companies retain existing workers for ninety days when the stores change ownership. AB359, from Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, is sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers.

Workers also advanced legislation that would improve enforcement and collection efforts when employers try to cheat them out of wages. Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León’s Senate Bill 588 makes employers with unpaid judgments post a bond and allows the Labor Commissioner to file a lien on the property of cheating employers.

Elementary school students will be safer because of Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell’s AB566, D-Long Beach, which requires contractors and subcontractors on K-12 facilities to hire a skilled workforce.

Each year, workers across the state come together to discuss legislative strategies to improve protections for all Californians. The legislation described above constitutes just a few of our successes in 2015. As we embark on a new year, we will continue pushing to ensure the rules of our state are fair for working families, and that they support the opportunity for families in Orange County and across California to continue to pursue the American Dream.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: January 1, 2016