Big wins for organized labor and progressive causes as California lawmakers wrap for the year

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When health care workers in California asked the state Legislature for a raise earlier this year, it seemed like the longest of long shots — especially after lawmakers in May had to loan hospitals in financial distress $150 million just to stay open.

But on Thursday, just before the Legislature adjourned for the year, lawmakers voted to boost the pay of health care workers to at least $25 per hour — and the California Hospital Association supported it, even issuing a joint news release with the labor union praising the bill. The union behind the effort called it the nation's first statewide minimum wage for health workers.

The vote capped a legislative session in California that once again showed the strength of organized labor in the nation's most populous state.

Fast food workers? They got a $20-per-hour minimum wage, which would be the highest base pay in the country for an often overlooked workforce.

Striking workers? They could get unemployment benefits starting in January, which could benefit actors, writers and Southern California hotel workers who have been on strike for months.

Semitruck drivers? Lawmakers gave them job security by voting to require a human to be present in any self-driving truck.

The broader workforce? Most other workers would get at least five guaranteed paid sick days, an increase from the three days required under existing law.

Organized labor's influence is easily explained by their prolific campaign donations, as they are some of the most reliable source of funds for the Democrats who control the state Legislature. But more than that, Democratic leaders credited labor's success this year to what Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas called “the times we live in" as the state emerges from a disruptive pandemic with inflation driving up the costs of everyday living.

“You consider the economy that we’re living in, consider what we’ve been through this last three years. I think workers and employees have really felt like they need more support and more help,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego. “I think that resonated.”

All of these bills now head to Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk, who has a month to decide whether to sign them into law — something that's not guaranteed in all cases despite strong support from lawmakers in his own party. He's already pledged to sign the bill giving fast food workers a raise, a deal he helped negotiate and what a spokesperson from his office called a “win-win for workers and businesses.”

But Newsom has raised concerns about the bill giving unemployment benefits to striking workers, in part because the fund the state uses to pay those benefits is insolvent. His administration has opposed the bill requiring people to be present to oversee self-driving trucks, warning it would stifle innovation.

Beyond wage and labor proposals, lawmakers sent Newsom hundreds of bills this year that do everything from raise taxes on gun and ammunition sales, and to give in-state tuition rates to some low-income Mexican residents who live near the California-Mexico border and attend community colleges.

A dramatic summer leadership fight in the state Assembly that caused some tension ultimately didn’t stop Democrats from holding together to advance their agenda. Republicans got a rare win when a bill by state Sen. Shannon Grove to increase penalties leveraged against child traffickers passed the Legislature. Democrats in the Assembly has initially blocked the bill, but they reversed course after Newsom and Democratic leaders intervened.

The session proved the power of Newsom's influence, as the second-term governor got nearly everything he wanted. In the spring, lawmakers agreed to Newsom's request to authorize state regulators to punish oil companies for price gouging. On Thursday, lawmakers agreed to place two of Newsom's initiatives before voters in March: One to change how the state pays mental health services, and the other to borrow more than $6 billion to increase the number of treatment beds available for people with mental illness.

And earlier this week, California became the first state to answer Newsom's call to ask Congress for a Constitutional convention to add more restrictions on gun sales nationwide — an action that dozens of other states would have to follow before anything would happen.

One thing lawmakers failed to tackle: A burgeoning home insurance crisis after major carriers announced they were limiting new policies in the state due to the constant threat of wildfires and other disasters. Lawmakers and industry representatives met in secret for weeks hoping to hammer out a deal, but a bill never materialized, which postpones the issue until next year. Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas, a Democrat from Hollister, vowed to hold public hearings on the issue over the next few weeks.

“More time was needed to ensure that you were addressing all concerns," Rivas said of lawmakers.

Big businesses had their eyes on a pair of major climate bills that some lauded as a chance for California to lead the nation in corporate transparency rules — while others criticized the bills as impractical and too wide in scope. The legislation would make big companies disclose a wide range of greenhouse gas emissions and how climate change affects their company’s finances. The emissions bills would create the most sweeping reporting laws in the nation. Newsom hasn't said yet whether he'll sign it.

The federal government could soon sign off on disclosure rules for public companies.

Many state have been debating transgender rights — including efforts to ban gender-affirming care, bar transgender women and girls from participating in sports, and require school employees to notify parents if their children change their gender identity.

But California lawmakers passed bills this year to expand protections for young LGBTQ+ people. Courts may have to weigh whether a parent affirms their child’s gender identity during custody disputes. Documents for a gender-change petition of a minor may be placed under seal. And families who want to care for foster youth may have to show that they can meet their needs regardless of the child's gender identity or sexual orientation.


Sophie Austin is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Austin @sophieadanna