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New 2021 California laws and how they could impact you

Sheyanne N Romero
Visalia Times-Delta
Scenes from a peaceful protest in response to the murder of George Floyd protest in downtown Mount Shasta in June of 2020.

Each year, a flurry of new state laws goes into effect quietly just after the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve. Two issues that dominated the news cycle in 2020 — law enforcement and COVID-19 — influenced many of the new laws going into effect in 2021. These laws could have the biggest impact on the greatest number of Californians. 

To help residents better understand what will change in the coming year, here are a number of noteworthy laws and how they could affect you. 

A scene from a George Floyd protest in Yreka in June of 2020.

Public Safety

This year, a number of high-profile deaths in police custody were reported across the country. In response to public outrage, California lawmakers passed a number of law enforcement-related bills.

One of the most notable is Assembly Bill 1196, which prohibits police from using chokeholds and carotid holds. A similar restraint was used on George Floyd, whose death in Minnesota sparked a summer of public protests and rallies. 

Assembly Bill 2542 prohibits state prosecutors from using discriminating means to seek a conviction or sentence. If a defendant can show racial bias in a case, they could be entitled to a new trial or sentence.

And felons on parole can now cast ballots. On Nov. 3, voters passed Proposition 17, a constitutional amendment put on the ballot by the state Legislature that allows people on parole for felony convictions to vote. 

"Parole by definition is not punishment — it’s to help reintegrate people back into the mainstream," said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento). "Parolees are many times working, paying taxes, raising their family, doing right. And they can’t vote on policies that affect their lives."

Juveniles in the criminal justice system were also the focus of many new laws.

Senate Bill 823 will effectively close the Division of Juvenile Justice — a division of the California Department of Corrections. As of July 2021, juvenile offenders who would otherwise be sentenced to a state facility to serve their sentence will instead be provided rehabilitative services close to home.

The bill allows for the creation of a new state-level youth justice agency — the Office of Youth and Community Restoration (OYCR). Leadership and oversight will be provided at a county level, according to Pacific Juvenile Defender Center

Additionally, minors who were in the juvenile justice system, but are no longer under its jurisdiction, are protected from having their police record unsealed under Assembly Bill 2425. 

"We are also taking important steps to break the school-to-prison pipeline. Still, we can and must do more," Gov. Gavin Newsom stated. "Working with our youth, faith and community leaders, law enforcement, the Legislature and countless others demanding change, my Administration remains committed to the important work ahead to make our criminal and juvenile justice systems fairer and safer for all Californians.”

COVID-19 and the workforce 

Following the pandemic, Newsom signed several pieces of legislation as part of his workforce protection package.

One crucial COVID-19 workplace law is Assembly Bill 685.

The Enhanced Enforcement and Employer Reporting Requirements allows Cal/OSHA to issue orders to shut down entire worksites that expose employees to an "imminent hazard related to COVID-19," according to Epstein, Becker and Green's Annual California Employment Law Update press release

The law also allows Cal/OSHA to issue citations for serious COVID-19 violations without giving employers 15-days’ notice.

Employers who receive a violation notice must immediately — within one business day of the notice of potential exposure — provide written notification to all employees at a worksite of potential exposures, COVID-19-related benefits and protections, and disinfect the worksite.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines an outbreak as "two or more patients with COVID-19 (who) are discovered to be linked" within a 14-day period. 

Local public health agencies also need to be notified by the employer of outbreaks within 48 hours of becoming aware of the outbreak. 

Jose Suarez, a strawberry farmworker, has been working in the strawberry fields since 2001. Suarez wears a medical face mask as he stands near rows of strawberry fields in  Watsonville, Calif., on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

The bill sunsets on Jan. 1, 2023.

Individuals working in industries where exposure to COVID-19 is high now have access to workers' compensation benefits if they contract the virus while at work. 

The COVID-19 Workers’ Compensation Presumption was set to expire on July 5 but was extended for first responders and some health care workers.

For all other California employers with five or more employees, the new law establishes a rebuttable presumption that only applies if an "outbreak" occurs, which is defined as any of the following:

  • If the employer has 100 employees or fewer: four employees test positive for COVID-19 with 14 calendar days.
  • If the employer has more than 100 employees: 4% of the number of employees test positive for COVID-19 within 14 calendar days.
  • The place of employment is ordered closed by public health officials due to a risk of infection with COVID-19.

"Protecting workers is critical to slowing the spread of this virus," Newsom stated in a September press release. "These two laws will help California workers stay safe at work and get the support they need if they are exposed to COVID-19."

Minimum wage 

Employers should make sure that they are in compliance with state and local minimum wage laws.

On Jan. 1, the state minimum wage goes up to $14 an hour for employers with 26 or more employees and $13 an hour for employers with fewer than 26 employees. 

Extensions in work leave

Senate Bill 1383, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, extends family leave protections to employees at smaller California businesses. It also increases the number of people who qualify for protected family leave.

Businesses that employ five or more workers will have to allow them to take family leave to care for grandparents, grandchildren, and siblings in addition to spouse, a registered domestic partner, child, or parent.

In another leave-related law, Assembly Bill 2992, allows employees who have been a victim of a crime additional time off to handle judicial proceedings or receive treatment for mental or physical injuries caused by the crime.

Diversity on board of directors 

California requires publicly held corporations to have a minimum number of women on their board of directors, depending on the board's size. Assembly Bill 979 requires these corporations to have at least one director from an "underrepresented community" by the end of 2021.

Underrepresented communities include people who self-identify as Black, African American, Hispanic, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Native Hawaiian, or Alaska Native or as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, according to Epstein, Becker and Green's Annual California Employment Law Update press release

By the end of 2022, corporations with between five and nine directors must have at least two directors from underrepresented communities, and corporations with 10 or more directors must have at least three directors from underrepresented communities.

Bizarre California laws 

For something a little lighthearted, here are a few bizarre state laws that may make you wonder how and where they originated.  

Frogs: A person is allowed to possess any number of live frogs for frog-jumping contests, but if a frog dies or is killed, "it must be destroyed as soon as possible, and may not be eaten or otherwise used for any purpose," according to state law

Pools: Nearly four decades ago, it was common for teenagers to break into public swimming pools. Teenagers would use the pools as a rink to ride their bicycles or skateboards. These shenanigans were famously depicted in Catherine Hardwicke's 2005 "Lords of Dogtown." Thanks to the Z-Boys, it's now illegal to ride your bike in a public pool

Nudity: It's called the "Wiener Bill." In 2012, California Senate Scott Wiener sponsored controversial legislation banning nudity at un-permitted events, which was eventually passed.  In 2015, a federal judge ordered the city to issue permits to nudists participating in parades. Following the ruling, residents now need a permit to get fully naked in San Francisco. 

Driverless cars: While driverless vehicles aren't commonplace, there are guidelines in place for those operating on California roadways. And one of the laws, autonomous vehicles can't drive over 60 miles per hour. They also have to be operated by a licensed driver, who is liable for any damage caused by the vehicle. 

Sheyanne Romero covers Tulare County public safety, local government and business for the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register newspapers.