New California Laws Strengthen Worker Protections

Legislation
New California Laws Strengthen Worker Protections

The beginning of 2013 saw the enactment of a host of new employment laws in California, some of which strengthen important protections for workers.  Among them is AB 1964, the Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2012, which went into effect on January 1, 2013.  The bill, introduced by California Assembly Member Mariko Yamada, reinforces the state's requirement that employers reasonably accommodate the religious observances of their employees.  (For more on related litigation by LAS-ELC, look here.)

The law specifies that religious clothing and hairstyles qualify as religious observances and makes clear that segregating an employee from customers or the public is not a reasonable accommodation of an employee’s religious beliefs.  This important clarification will hopefully prevent the segregation of workers who have the right to observe their deeply held beliefs.  AB1964 is an important step toward ensuring equal employment opportunity for all Californians, regardless of religious observance or appearance.   

AB 2386, which also took effect on January 1st, clarifies that unlawful sex discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act includes discrimination because of breastfeeding or related medical conditions.  In 2009, the Fair Employment and Housing Commission issued a precedential decision in DFEH v. Acosta Tacos holding that an employer who fired a woman for breastfeeding her infant during her lunch break discriminated against the employee on the basis of sex.  The Commission observed, “Breastfeeding is an activity intrinsic to the female sex.”  Meanwhile, in 2012 in EEOC v. Houston Funding II, a federal district court in Texas reached the opposite conclusion under federal anti-discrimination law, holding that “Firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex-based discrimination.”  The EEOC has appealed the decision.  With the passage of AB 2386, the California Legislature has reaffirmed our state’s strong employment protections for working new mothers.