California laws coming in 2021

New workers protections, expanded family leave and more take effect as early as Jan. 1

When we wake up Friday, and it’s officially the new year, things are likely to look pretty much the same. Many people still won’t be going into work, outdoor dining will still be closed, and, hopefully, airports won’t be crowded with grumpy travelers still slightly hungover from the prior night’s festivities.

But closing the door on this doozy of a year does bring with it some changes: the real hope of a vaccine reaching healthcare and other frontline workers; a new incoming presidential administration; and the receipt by some city agencies and families of financial aid from a recently signed federal relief package.

Among those changes, too, is a suite of state laws that will go into effect during 2021. There are a lot of them, but we picked out a few likely to have the most noticeable impact.

Worker protections related to COVID-19

Governor Gavin Newsom signed a trio of bills in September providing new COVID-19-related labor protections in the workplace. Senate Bill 1159 allows an essential worker to file for worker’s compensation if she contracts the coronavirus while doing her job. It also allows companies to contest those claims. Assembly Bill 685 tightens enforcement on workplaces that don’t follow safety protocols, allowing the government to issue citations for “serious violations related to COVID-19” without a 15-day notice. It also requires employers to notify all employees of potential exposure as well as alert local public health agencies about any outbreaks, defined as three or more positive COVID-19 cases among workers from different households within two weeks. The governor also signed AB 1867, which went into effect immediately, providing workers at private companies with more than 500 employees nationally with supplemental paid sick leave related to the coronavirus.

Expanded family leave

Starting Jan. 1, any company with five employees or more will be required to guarantee workers their jobs after they take up to 12 weeks of leave to care for a new baby or a sick loved one, assuming the person has worked the job for one year. Prior to passage of SB 1383, only large employers were required to provide these protections. Lawmakers estimate 6 million Californians will get these additional protections as a result.

Eviction help

After lengthy and last minute dealmaking, AB 3088 was signed into law in the final days of this year’s legislative session. It gives renters financially impacted by COVID-19 eviction protection through Feb. 2021, at which point they have to pay 25 percent of the accumulated rent owed from the five months prior. Landlords are able to start collecting all missed rent payments in court starting March 2021.

Affordable housing on church property

A pair of bills from each of the state house chambers will make it easier for churches to build affordable housing on their property. SB 899, introduced by San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener, enables them to build housing complexes dedicated to low-income families without having to get a new zoning permit that allows for multifamily housing. The projects themselves can be up to three stories high with as many as 40 units in residential neighborhoods and up to five stories high with as many as 150 units in mixed-use or commercial neighborhoods. AB 1851 would make it easier for churches to build affordable housing on their parking lots without having to replace lost spots.

Mental health

Also introduced by Wiener, SB 855 expands the mental health conditions considered “medically necessary” under California’s state parity law and requires health insurance plans to determine coverage based on advice from specialists. A 20-year-old parity law seeks to make sure individuals in need of mental health treatment get the same level of care they would for physical ailments, but, to date, it has only included nine mental health disorders and excluded substance abuse.

No more flavored tobacco

San Francisco banned the sale of flavored tobacco in 2018, but residents who traveled down the Peninsula, for example, to make their purchase will soon be out of luck. State Sen. Jerry Hill from nearby San Mateo introduced a bill to ban the sale of flavored tobacco statewide, an effort to keep kids from using tobacco products such as vapes or pods. SB 793 stipulates retailers will be fined if they’re found to be selling these goods.

Diversity in corporate board rooms

California will soon be the first state to have a law that mandates the racial makeup of board rooms. AB 979 requires every corporate board across the state to have at least one member who self-identifies as Black, African American, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native or LGBT by the end of 2021.

Tax benefits for undocumented workers

Starting in the spring, undocumented workers who file taxes are eligible for the state’s refund for low-income residents, known as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Currently, only households in which every worker has a social security number can receive the benefit.

Bans on carotid and choke holds

Though police are already prohibited from using these here in San Francisco, they’re now illegal for law enforcement statewide thanks to AB 1196.

Opportunity for formerly incarcerated firefighters

Every year, California gets help fighting raging fires from incarcerated individuals. But when those people are released from prison, they have difficulty finding work in the same field. AB 2147 allows individuals to complete a California Conservation Camp program and, in exchange, get their felonies expunged once they’re released, which would make it much easier for them to find a job.

Expansion of the right to vote

Prop. 17 was passed by voters in November. It allows individuals on parole to vote.

Eliminating criminal justice fines

Two bills — AB 1869 and SB 1290 — work in tandem to reduce the deleterious economic impact on those involved in the criminal justice system and their families. AB 1869 prevents counties from collecting administrative fees charged to adults such as work release, electronic monitoring and public defenders. SB 1290 erases debt accrued by parents funding their child’s incarceration.

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