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Castillo: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

  • State: California
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While the California Supreme Court rejected the first official legal challenge to Proposition 22, Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced a new effort to bolster the Department of Justice’s ability to protect worker rights.

Michael Castillo

Michael Castillo

On Jan. 28, Becerra announced the formation of the new Worker Rights and Fair Labor Section under the California Department of Justice’s Division of Public Rights, which had previously been acting as a bureau within the Civil Rights Enforcement Section. Establishing the unit as its own section will expand the ability of the DOJ to protect the health, safety and rights of all California workers, Becerra’s office noted in the release.

“With nearly 20 million people in California’s workforce in industries ranging from agriculture and construction to information technology and entertainment, the section will use the law enforcement powers of the Attorney General’s Office to continue to stand up for everyone working in the state — no matter where they come from,” the release stated.

The new section will focus on providing protections against workplace issues such as wage theft, health and safety violations and employee misclassification, which companies can use to avoid legal obligations for their workers such as paid sick leave, minimum wage and workers’ compensation insurance.

Meanwhile, on the employee classification front, the California Supreme Court rejected a constitutional legal challenge to Prop. 22 brought by a group of app-based drivers and the Service Employees International Union.

The court declined to hear the case in a 5-2 ruling, noting the case could be filed in a lower court.

The petition, which contended that the proposition illegally superseded the state Legislature’s exclusive plenary power to establish a system of workers’ compensation for gig workers, was filed directly in the Supreme Court on an emergency basis hoping to bring back protections for thousands of gig workers under AB 5.

CAAA submitted an amicus curiae letter to the court in support of the petition seeking review, arguing that Prop. 22 bypassed the Legislature in its creation of a new class of workers (with severely limited rights) in violation of the Constitution.

While it’s unclear whether SEIU will file the petition in a lower court, Hector Castellanos, one of the drivers named in the suit who’s driven for Uber and Lyft for nearly five years, said in a statement, “We will consider every option available to protect California workers from attempts by companies like Uber and Lyft to subvert our democracy and attack our rights in order to improve their bottom lines.”

It’s disappointing that the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case, setting the movement to protect gig workers two steps back, though we hope this fight is far from over.

Attorney General Becerra’s move to establish the Worker Rights and Fair Labor Section is a timely step forward for worker protections. Here’s hoping for many more forward steps in 2021.

Michael Castillo is communications director for the California Applicants' Attorneys Association. This opinion is republished, with permission, from the CAAA website.

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