California lawmakers ask Newsom to act immediately on unemployment claims

From Los Angeles Times:

More than half the members of the California Legislature called on Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday to immediately begin paying unemployment benefits to many of the more than 1 million jobless workers whose claims have been stalled in the system as the state works to clear a months-long backlog.

In a letter to governor, a bipartisan group of 61 lawmakers issued a series of requests for immediate action at the state Employment Development Department, including calls for the agency to ensure service representatives do not hang up on callers who they can’t help, and implement an automatic call-back system to quickly respond to those who cannot reach a live operator. The lawmakers also called for the agency to expedite its approval of unemployment benefits by retroactively certifying claims and resolving issues later in the process.

“In our fifth month of the pandemic, with so many constituents yet to receive a single unemployment payment, it’s clear that EDD is failing California,” said the letter to Newsom. “Millions of our constituents have had no income for months. As Californians wait for answers from EDD, they have depleted their life savings, have gone into extreme debt, and are in deep panic as they figure out how to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.”

EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy said the agency is reviewing the letter and will provide a response as soon as possible. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter’s recommendations.

The letter, which was organized by Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), was signed by 49 members of the Assembly and 12 members of the state Senate, including Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, and sent a week after Newsom announced the creation of a “strike team” to reform EDD and complete all unanswered claims by the end of September.

The governor said the claims are from those who may be eligible for payment but require more information. Many claims are “pending resolution” because they have issues to resolve, including verification of the identity of the filer, he said.

The legislators said in their letter that the backlog should be cleared sooner than the end of September and that, in the interim, Californians with stalled claims should receive some portion of their benefits to help them make ends meet.

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California unemployment falls, but virus surge likely to reverse job gains

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

California added 558,200 jobs from mid-May to mid-June and state unemployment fell from 16.4% to 14.9% — but don’t start celebrating yet. The numbers don’t account for the resurgence of COVID-19 cases throughout the U.S. and in California in the last half of June or the retreat in plans to reopen the economy. The numbers were released Friday morning by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which slightly revised the earlier jobless figure from 16.3% to 16.4%.

Leisure and hospitality added the most jobs, at 292,500, benefiting from statewide reopenings of bars and dine-in restaurants, according to the California Employment Development Department. As of mid-June, that sector had regained more than a third of job losses from March and April. Construction jobs had the highest percentage gain, clawing back 68% of jobs lost during the pandemic. Government suffered the largest decline in jobs, at 36,300.

But the dial-back is bound to reverse a positive trend in rehiring as bars, restaurants, hotels, airlines and thousands of other affected businesses scale back already reduced operations or remain closed, said Michael S. Bernick, an attorney at Duane Morris and former head of the California Employment Development Department.

“In some cases, workers rehired in June have been laid off [again] within a short time,” he said. “In other cases, companies decide they can no longer hang on. Every day brings reports of businesses announcing they are closing permanently in California.” Still, he said, the job gain is the highest in the nation, and probably the largest monthly jobs gain since World War II.

But any recovery will be jerky. The nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute said that due to the latest rise in COVID-19 cases, “Layoffs are going to pick up again as people are laid off for a second time, and hires will likely slow as well.

“Even with June’s rebound, which followed a small upturn in May, payroll employment in California stands 1.9 million lower than February. This represents an 11% drop, worse than the 9.6% loss for the nation as a whole,” said Lynn Reaser, economist at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She noted that California’s current unemployment is nearly four times its 4% year-ago rate and well above the 11.1% national rate.

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CA Initiative to restore voting rights to parolees heads to November ballot

From the Sacramento Bee:

Voters will decide this November whether to restore voting rights for Californians on parole after state lawmakers approved a proposal Wednesday to place that question on the ballot.

On a 28-9 initial vote, the state Senate sent Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6 to the Nov. 3 ballot, opening a possibility for more than 40,000 formerly incarcerated residents to regain their voting ability before they finish their probationary period.

State Sen. Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, said ACA 6 would allow people on parole to reintegrate into and become a “contributing member to society.”

“People on parole are our family members, our colleagues, our neighbors, our friends,” Bradford said. “They go to work every day. They pay taxes. They do their part to successfully reintegrate themselves back into society, yet the stigma exists for them.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there’s been an emerging trend to lift voting restrictions on formerly incarcerated people, though policy shifts vary by state.

Maine and Vermont allow both parolees and currently incarcerated people to vote, while 16 states and D.C. only prohibit voting for those currently serving a sentence. Twenty-one states, including both conservative and liberal regions, revoke those rights both incarcerated people and those on parole, and may require payment of fees or fines before regranting that right. Another 11 states ban formerly incarcerated people from voting “indefinitely,” according to the conference.

“The removal of the right to vote is not based in an interest in public safety,” said Taina Vargas-Edmond, executive director of Initiate Justice, an advocacy group sponsoring the bill. “Rather, it is rooted in a punitive justice belief system that intentionally attempts to rob marginalized people of their political power.”

Dozens of other organizations — many focused on racial equity — and individuals also support the measure, including California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, and the American Civil Liberties Union of California.

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California considers unprecedented $25 billion recovery fund and rental relief

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Two unprecedented proposals to help Californians weather the fiscal storm unleashed by the coronavirus crisis are expected to be unveiled Tuesday by Democrats in the state Senate — one to help struggling renters, the other to create a $25-billion economic recovery fund by issuing long-term vouchers to those willing to prepay their future state income taxes.

Taken together, the ideas suggest lawmakers are willing to launch never-before-tried experiments to avoid the unpaid debts and deep cuts to government services that resulted from the Great Recession more than a decade ago.

“We need some short-term assistance,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) in an interview with The Times on Monday. “But we’ve got to be thinking long term on how to do this in a very strategic way.”

The proposals are scheduled to be formally unveiled Tuesday morning in Sacramento, two days before Gov. Gavin Newsom sends lawmakers a plan to erase a short-term budget deficit that could total more than $54 billion.

Neither the renter-assistance program nor the economic recovery fund would have a direct effect on the state budget in the coming weeks and months. Still, lawmakers believe both ideas could boost California’s shattered economy.

The unconventional effort to help renters would ask landlords to forgive rent payments in exchange for equally sized tax credits spread out over a 10-year period starting in 2024. The tax credits would be transferable, meaning the property owner could sell them to an outside investor and get cash immediately.

“This is a substantive proposal that protects those who are struggling to afford their rent and also keeps rental properties from going into foreclosure,” state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) said. “This equitable strategy will keep people housed.”

Some local governments have already stepped up to address concerns about renters being evicted during the public health crisis, promoting a variety of rental assistance programs. Pending legislation at the state Capitol also seeks to prevent evictions during the coronavirus state of emergency, which was declared by Newsom in March and has no targeted end date.

Read the complete article here.

California Sues Uber and Lyft, Claiming Workers Are Misclassified

From today’s New York Times:

California’s attorney general and a coalition of city attorneys in the state sued Uber and Lyft on Tuesday, claiming the companies wrongfully classified their drivers as independent contractors in violation of a state law that makes them employees.

The law, known as Assembly Bill 5, requires companies to treat their workers as employees instead of contractors if they control how workers perform tasks or if the work is a routine part of a company’s business.

At least one million gig workers in the state are affected by the law, which is supposed to give them a path to benefits like a minimum wage and unemployment insurance that have been traditionally withheld from independent contractors.

Although A.B. 5 took effect on Jan. 1, Uber, Lyft and other gig economy companies that operate in California have resisted and are not taking steps to reclassify their drivers. Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have poured $90 million into a campaign for a ballot initiative that would exempt them from complying with the law. Uber has also argued that its core business is technology, not rides, and therefore drivers are not a key part of its business.

The lawsuit also claims the ride-hailing companies are engaging in an unfair business practice that harms other California companies that follow the law. By avoiding payroll taxes and not paying minimum wage, Uber and Lyft are able to provide rides at “an artificially low cost,” the suit claims, giving them a competitive advantage over other businesses. The suit seeks civil penalties and back wages for workers that could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“California has ground rules with rights and protections for workers and their employers. We intend to make sure that Uber or Lyft play by the rules,” Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, said in a statement. The city attorneys of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego joined in the lawsuit.

California’s move is a significant threat to the gig companies and could influence other states with similar laws to take action against them, labor experts said.

Read the complete article here.

Coronavirus to cost California 125,000 hotel jobs trade group says

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Struck by a severe drop in travel demand, California’s hotel industry is expected to lose more than 125,000 jobs in the next few weeks, more than any other state, an industry trade group estimated Monday.

The hotel industry in the Golden State is expected to be hit hardest by the coronavirus outbreak because California has the most hotel jobs — about 285,000 — according to the American Hotel and Lodging Assn. trade group.

In addition to the loss of 125,000 hotel jobs, another 414,000 jobs that are supported by the hotel industry, such as waiters, busboys, bartenders and limousine drivers, could disappear in the next few weeks, the group said.

Only last month, the average occupancy rate — the percentage of hotel rooms filled — was 62% across the country, according to STR Global, a Tennessee company that tracks hotel data. By mid-March, the average occupancy rate nationwide had dropped to 53%.

To break even, hotels need to have an occupancy rate of 41% to 63%, depending on the type of hotel, according to industry analysis. Upscale hotels need a higher occupancy rate to pay for extra amenities, such as room service, valets and concierges, while economy hotels can break even with a much lower occupancy rate.

Because of the pandemic, hotels in some cities, including Seattle; San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and Boston, are reporting occupancy rates below 20%, with some individual hotels already shutting down, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Assn.

“The impact to our industry is already more severe than anything we’ve seen before, including September 11th and the Great Recession of 2008 combined,” Chip Rogers, chief executive of the trade association said in a statement Monday.

The lodging industry requested the federal government provide $150 billion in financial aid to keep the hotel industry afloat during the crisis. That is in addition to the $100 billion requested by other segments of the travel industry, such as convention centers, theme parks and tour companies.

Read the complete article here.

Gag clauses for CA state workers, public employees violate free speech rights

From today’s Sacramento Bee:

Employees at a California tax agency started to suspect something was up when a compliance officer emailed everyone a reminder not talk with the media one morning in March.

Later that day, CBS Sacramento aired a story on new “RIOT” buttons that had been installed in elevators in the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration building, alarming some employees. The story included interviews with a few workers outside the department’s building at 450 N Street, which has become notorious for maintenance problems.

“The general message of the policy is that when staff receives inquiries from reporters, they should refer them to their supervisor or manager as those inquiries are handled by CDTFA by what is now called our External Affairs Division,” said an email from Program and Compliance Bureau Chief James Dahlen.

Yet those types of blanket restrictions on government employees’ speech are unconstitutional, according to a recently published paper from the Florida-based Brechner Center for Freedom of Information.

“People don’t forfeit their constitutional rights, including the right of free expression, simply by accepting government employment,” the paper says, citing two Supreme Court decisions from 1967.

Such “gag” policies are nonetheless common, affecting public employees from local schools and police departments to state and federal agencies, according to the paper.

California state government is no exception. Many, while not all, state departments have policies instructing employees to refrain from talking to the media and to refer all questions to public information officers, even when the employees are experts on the topics they’re being asked about.

Read the complete article here.

Data Privacy: What Californians can do about creepy data collection in 2020

From today’s The Mercury News:

Starting New Year’s Day, Californians creeped out by the trove of personal data companies collect on their online shopping, searching and social media habits will get sweeping new privacy rights that will let them opt out of having their information sold or shared and let them demand that it be deleted.

“This is really a watershed moment for consumers,” said Scott W. Pink, a Menlo Park lawyer who advises companies on cybersecurity and privacy. “It’s the first law in the United States outside specialized industries like health care that provides consumers some degree of control and access over data collected on them.”

The California Consumer Privacy Act approved in June 2018 was inspired by public outrage over data breaches at major companies such as Facebook, Yahoo and Equifax that exposed consumers to potential fraud and misuse of their personal information, and by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

The new law requires that businesses disclose their data gathering and sharing practices and allows consumers to opt out of it and to demand that businesses delete collected information on them. It prohibits companies from penalizing consumers with higher rates or fewer services for exercising their privacy rights and from selling information about children under age 16 without their explicit consent.

But questions continue to swirl as companies scramble to comply. The state attorney general is still finalizing proposed regulations intended to guide consumers and businesses in order to meet a July deadline when enforcement is expected to begin.

And both consumer and business advocates continue to spar over whether the new privacy provisions go too far or not far enough, with proposed state and federal substitutes in the works.

Read the complete article here.

Rep. Duncan Hunter pleads guilty in campaign finance scandal, will resign from Congress

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

After years of denials and claims that he was the target of a political witch hunt, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) is scheduled to appear in federal court Tuesday morning to plead guilty in a sweeping campaign finance investigation.

The announcement was posted on the U.S. District Court docket Monday morning, then KUSI aired an interview with Hunter in which he said he would plead guilty to one of the 60 criminal charges against him. He suggested that he is likely to spend time in custody.

“The plea I accepted is misuse of my own campaign funds, of which I pled guilty to only one count,” Hunter told the station. “I think it’s important that people know that I did make mistakes. I did not properly monitor or account for my campaign money. I justify my plea with the understanding that I am responsible for my own campaign and my own campaign money.”

The reversal comes nearly six months after Hunter’s wife and former campaign manager, Margaret Hunter, admitted to her role in a widespread scheme that saw the couple allegedly spend more than $200,000 in campaign donations on family expenses like vacationsgas, groceriesschool lunches and oral surgery. Such spending is prohibited to prevent undue influence by contributors.ADVERTISING

Hunter did not explicitly say he would be stepping down — often an outcome in any such plea agreement — but he answered a question about what would happen to his seat in Congress.

“I’m confident that the transition will be a good one,” he told KUSI. “My office is going to remain open. We’re going to pass it off to whoever takes this seat next. I think it’s important to keep the seat a Republican seat.”

The trial, which already was pushed back twice as defense attorneys challenged various claims in the federal indictment, was scheduled to begin Jan. 22.

“Congressman Hunter has shown a blatant disregard for the law and engaged in one of the most egregious congressional spending scandals we have ever seen,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the left-leaning advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “We are glad to see Congressman Hunter will finally face the consequences of his actions. Given that he will now be a convicted criminal for abusing his office, Congressman Hunter must resign immediately.”

Read the complete article here.

Wage inequality is surging in California, and not just on the coast. Here’s why

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

Wage inequality has risen more in California cities than in the metropolitan areas of any other state, with seven of the nation’s 15 most unequal cities located in the Golden State.

San Jose, with its concentration of Silicon Valley technology jobs, had the largest gap of any California metro area between those at the top of the pay scale and those at the bottom. It ranked second in the nation after the suburb of Fairfield, Conn., home to wealthy New York financiers, according to a new analysis of 2015 U.S. Census data by Federal Reserve economists. San Francisco and Los Angeles also ranked high on the list.

More surprising, perhaps, is the inclusion of Bakersfield, where high-wage engineering jobs are juxtaposed with poverty-wage farm work.The heavy concentration of California metro areas is a striking turnabout from 1980, when just three figured in the top 15.

As inequality has soared across the United States, most sharply since the 1980s, it has been the focus of widespread debate and become a hot political issue. But less attention has focused on dramatic geographical differences in inequality.

“Wage inequality … has risen quite sharply in some parts of the country, while it has been much more subdued in other places,” wrote Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who titled their report, “Why Are Some Places So Much More Unequal than Others?

Large cities with dynamic economies tend to have higher wage disparities, while midsized cities with “sluggish economies” are less unequal because they attract fewer high-wage workers, the authors found.

Read the complete article here.