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California Attorney General (AG) Xavier Becerra recently announced that he has created the Worker Rights and Fair Labor Section, which will fall under the California Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Division of Public Rights. This new section will be tasked with protecting workers against workplace issues such as wage theft, health and safety violations, and employee misclassification. Additionally, it will bolster the enforcement of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s (Cal/OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS), which are designed to protect workers from COVID-19.

According to an AG office spokesperson, “the new section will have a senior assistant AG overseeing the work of supervising deputy AGs and various deputy AGs. As a result, among other things, the increase in personnel handling these matters will significantly strengthen DOJ’s capacity to tackle issues involving workers’ rights.” One of the first tasks of the section will be to defend Cal/OSHA in two lawsuits with respect to the new ETS.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

Employers may want to prepare for heightened scrutiny on issues pertaining to workers’ rights. The new section’s mandate is to “help bring increased focus and expertise to implement policy and protect against workplace issues … such as:

  • Wage theft, working with partner agencies to help address systemic deficiencies that result in workers losing out on the wages they are due, including in instances where businesses fail to pay overtime or allow for meal and rest breaks;
  • Health and safety violations, stepping up DOJ’s ability to tackle current and emerging trends such as those brought on by the coronavirus; and
  • Employee misclassification, protecting workers from being inappropriately classified as independent contractors, which can allow companies to evade legal obligations such as minimum wage, sick leave, and overtime.” [Emphasis in original.]

It is worth noting that President Joe Biden recently nominated Becerra to lead the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If the U.S. Senate confirms his nomination, Becerra’s replacement will be responsible for following through with the mandate for the new section. As of February 11, 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom has not identified a nominee to succeed Becerra.

Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor this development and will post updates in the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center and on the California blog as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.

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