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New Year, New Laws: A Look at Legislation That Begins in 2021

Covid-19 exposure requirements, family leave for small businesses, and more new laws take effect

Californians will have some new laws to navigate starting in 2021. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Every January, the new year brings with it dozens of new laws that impact day-to-day life in many different ways.

Here are a few we find notable, from criminal justice reform to animal welfare and workplace rules:

From inmate to firefighter

During the massive series of fires that scorched much of California this summer, hundreds of state prison inmates helped battle the blazes. But for most, their criminal records prevented them from becoming full-fledged firefighters.

Not anymore under Assembly Bill 2147, which will allow certain inmates who work in prison fire camps to have their records expunged when they are released.

Covid-19 reports

Under Assembly Bill 685, starting on Jan. 1 employers will be required to inform employees of potential exposure to Covid-19 within a day of the exposure occurring. This notification must happen in writing, and must also inform the employees of their benefits and rights.

In addition, employers would have 48 hours to notify the public of workplace outbreaks.

Penalties for using phone while driving

Using a cell phone in a handheld manner while driving is currently punishable by a fine. But because of Assembly Bill 47, as of July 1 violating the hands-free law a second time within 36 months of a prior conviction for the same offense will result in a point being added to a driver’s record.

This applies to the violations of talking or texting while driving (except for hands-free use) and to any use of these devices while driving.

Family leave for small businesses

When the new year rolls around, small businesses that employ five or more people will be required to give family leave to care for a spouse, child, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings or a registered domestic partner under Senate Bill 1383.

A more diverse workplace

Publicly traded companies, which are already required to have at least one woman on their boards, will by the end of 2021 be required to also have one board member from an “under-represented” group under Assembly Bill 979.

This includes people from the LGBTQ community, as well as people who are Black, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Alaska Native.

Closing the gender gap

The history of gender equality in the U.S. has been unequal, long dominated by men, and underscored by a system that pays women less for doing equal work as their male colleagues.

Much is changing, and Senate Bill 973 takes one step further by requiring companies with 100 or more employees to report annually their employee pay data to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. 

Increased minimum wage

Senate Bill 3 passed the California Legislature in 2016. That law provides incremental increases every year to the state’s minimum wage. This year, that number goes up to $14 per hour.

Reparations for slavery

By June 2021, a nine-person task force will convene to come up with proposals for providing reparations to the descendants of slaves under Assembly Bill 3121.

The task force will, among other things, study the issue as it relates to California and recommend what the compensation will be, who is eligible and how it will be given out.

Smokers, keep your butts off the beach!

California state law already widely prohibits smoking within 25 feet of a playground and other places where children play. Violators face a $250 fine.

Senate Bill 8 now prohibits smoking on state beaches and state parks, with violators facing a $25 infraction.

According to the World Health Organization, smokers toss an estimated 1.5 million pounds of cigarette butts onto the ground per year. The butts are harmful to the environment and to wildlife.

Easing penalties on sex workers

In the past, sex workers have been afraid to report crimes such as sexual assault, because they were worried they could be arrested. Senate Bill 233 prohibits misdemeanor arrests for certain sex work crimes. The law also prohibits possession of condoms from being used as evidence of sex work crimes.

There goes the circus

Senate Bill 313 prohibits animals—except, for some reason, dogs, cats and horses—from being used for performances in circuses. Advocates say the law will help end cruelty to animals.

Jury service restored to felons

Previously, people convicted of felonies were prohibited from serving on juries. Senate Bill 310 will restore that right to most of them, except for those on post-release supervision, and felony sex offenders.

Youth justice reform

Starting in July, Senate Bill 328 will stop all transfers of young people to the state’s youth prisons. Instead, they will be held in local facilities closer to their families and in their communities. Advocates say the law will reform the state’s troubled youth justice system.

Breakthrough

It is a crime to leave a child alone in a locked car. But until now, good samaritans who broke into cars to rescue children faced possible criminal penalties.

Assembly Bill 2717 exempts those bystanders from liabilities, as long as they called 911, and believed that the child was in danger of “suffering, disability, or death.”

Banning chokeholds

On May 25, Minneapolis police officers placed George Floyd in a carotid artery chokehold. Floyd died as a result of the hold, prompting calls nationwide for police reformAssembly Bill 1196 bans those holds.

Sleep a little longer

In what will come as welcome news for students, Senate Bill 328 will, by July 1, require high schools to start no earlier than 8am, and middle schools no earlier than 8:30am.

Hurry housing

Senate Bill 330 cuts the time it takes to obtain building permits for new housing construction. Supporters say it will help the housing crisis in California, which ranks 49th in the nation for the number of housing units per capita. 

Along those same lines, Senate Bill 450 exempts from the California Environmental Quality Act projects to convert hotels, apartment buildings and other residential structures into supportive or transitional housing.

Improving school safety

Senate Bill 541 will require all K-12 schools to conduct at least one lockdown drill per year, and to make them age-appropriate.

A pet project

When dogs and cats get lost, they now have a way home. That’s thanks to Senate Bill 573, which requires all animals adopted or released from animal shelters to be microchipped. Placed under the skin of the back between the shoulder blades of animals, the chip can be scanned by animal control officers. The information allows the officers to find the pets’ owners.

Move over, slow down 

Assembly Bill 2285 extends the provisions of the “Move Over, Slow Down” law currently in place on freeways to also apply to local streets and roads. Drivers approaching a stationary emergency vehicle displaying emergency lights–including tow trucks and Caltrans vehicles–must now move to another lane when possible, or slow to a reasonable speed on all highways, not just freeways. The law is effective Jan. 1.

Reporter/Photographer Tarmo Hannula contributed to this story.

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