On September 30, California Governor Gavin Newsom approved Assembly Bill 1947 (AB 1947). The new legislation amends provisions of California’s Labor Code related to whistleblower retaliation cases. The pro-whistleblower bill extends the deadline for a whistleblower to file a retaliation claim and allows courts to award attorney fees to whistleblowers. The new law will go into effect on January 1, 2021.
The California Labor Code contains anti-whistleblower provisions that prohibit employers from firing or otherwise discriminating against employees who report crimes or violations to law enforcement, regulatory agencies, superiors, or internal compliance programs. Additionally, the Labor Code prohibits employers from adopting internal rules that would prevent such disclosures.
California Labor Code § 98.7 enables workers to file retaliation claims with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE), the state agency that enforces labor laws. The DLSE conducts administrative investigations and can levy penalties against the employer and call for the reinstatement of a whistleblower. These actions are typically faster than court proceedings. Under the existing legislation, whistleblowers have six months after a retaliatory action to file a claim with the DLSE. The newly approved amendment extends this deadline to one year after the offense occurs.
Labor Code § 1102.5 contains the anti-retaliation provisions detailed above. Under the existing legislation, whistleblowers who prevail in a retaliation lawsuit against an employer may be reinstated with back pay, benefits, and paid damages. The newly approved amendment also allows whistleblowers to be awarded attorney fees.
A comment in the August Senate Floor Analysis of the bill explains that “workplace anti-retaliation laws are the bedrock upon which all other workplace rights rest. As a practical matter, employees have no real right to minimum wage, overtime, rest breaks, worksite safety, or to be free from harassment if, upon attempting to exercise those rights, they can be fired immediately.”
Furthermore, the Senate Judiciary report on the bill published in late July explains that the amendment related to the payment of attorney fees “will give workers who cannot afford to pay an attorney a better chance of obtaining legal representation, thereby increasing access to justice and promoting private enforcement of the public interest in workplaces that are free of retaliation. The fact that low-income workers are often the most vulnerable to workplace retaliation further supports the policy.”