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New California Laws in 2021

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Good morning.

A slate of new laws that went into effect on Jan. 1 reflect the trials of the previous year, when wildfires, the pandemic and criminal justice reform were top of mind for many Californians.

Of the hundreds of bills that were signed into law, many won’t be enacted until later this year. Starting in July, Californians will be prohibited from buying more than one semiautomatic rifle in a 30-day period. Proposition 19, which narrowly passed in the fall, will require people who inherit property to use it as their primary residence or have its tax value reassessed starting in February. And a flavored-tobacco ban that was set to go into effect last week now probably won’t be adopted until at least 2022.

Here’s a look at some of the laws that went into effect first thing in 2021.

Minimum wage

Employers must pay a minimum wage of $14 per hour, a $1 increase from last year’s hourly minimum. Businesses with fewer than 26 workers must increase their hourly wage to at least $13. Some cities, like Palo Alto, Sonoma and Mountain View have already increased their minimum wages to $15 or more this year.

The hourly wage increases were set in motion in 2016 by Gov. Jerry Brown, with a law that required the state’s mandatory minimum wage to be increased incrementally every year, until it reached $15 an hour in 2022. Gov. Gavin Newsom could have suspended this year’s wage increase because of the pandemic, but decided against it. “Not allowing this increase to go forward will only make life harder for those Californians who have already borne a disproportionate share of the economic hardship caused by this pandemic,” he said in a statement.

Expansion of paid family-leave benefits

A new law that went into effect this year expands family-leave benefits for nearly six million residents. It also ensures that Californians who work for an employer with at least five employees are included in job protection benefits. Previously, 40 percent of residents were at risk of losing their jobs if taking leave simply because their employer was too small.

The new law also expands on the potential reasons for taking leave, making it possible for workers affected by Covid-19 to take time off to care for a parent, sibling or grandchild.

Transgender protections

The Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act allows incarcerated transgender, gender-nonconforming and intersex individuals to be housed and searched according to their gender identity. Individuals will be housed where they feel they will be the safest. State corrections officers will be required to record self-reported gender identity, gender pronouns and honorifics during intake and throughout incarceration. The law also prohibits prison workers from failing to use a person’s specified gender pronouns and honorifics.

Senator Scott Wiener, who wrote the bill, called it “lifesaving legislation that will protect trans people in prison, particularly trans women who are subject to high levels of assault and harassment in men’s facilities.”

Increased consumer financial protections

The California Consumer Financial Protection Law gives the revamped Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, which is modeled after the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a broad set of new powers and restores certain financial protections.

Pandemic-inspired scams that promise Covid-19 cures or aim to cheat people out of stimulus checks are on the rise throughout the state.

Workplace Covid-19 protections

The new law requires employers to take specific actions, like written notifications to employees, within one business day of a potential exposure to Covid-19 in the workplace. The notification must be written in English and another language, if applicable.

A recent outbreak at a poultry plant in the Central Valley, where I.C.U. beds have been at full capacity for weeks, has illustrated the impact of employers who are slow to report outbreaks.

Inmate firefighters

A longstanding program that relies on incarcerated individuals to fight wildfires will now allow nonviolent offenders to petition to get their records expunged and to use their training to gain employment as firefighters. Inmates were previously barred from becoming professional firefighters after release because of their criminal records.

After a devastating fire season, when many inmate firefighters were released early because of the pandemic, prisoner firefighting crews served a crucial role. However, critics of the program compare it to slave labor, since prisoners flighting blazes on the front lines make just $1 an hour while working in treacherous conditions.

Criminal justice reform

The California Racial Justice Act expands opportunities for defendants to challenge a charge or conviction by demonstrating that there was racial bias present in their case.

For judgments issued on or after Jan. 1, challenges can be made if racially coded language is used in court or if there were displays of intentional discrimination by a lawyer, judge or juror. In addition, convictions or sentences can be challenged if there is evidence that people of one race are disproportionately charged or convicted of a specific crime or if one race is singled out to receive longer or more severe sentences.

(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox.)


Last Friday was the deadliest day in the course of the pandemic in California, with 585 deaths recorded on a single day. The majority of cases are in Los Angeles County, which is experiencing a surge from Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities. The weekly average of new cases per day in the county is at its highest yet, at 16,193. That’s one new case every six seconds, Mayor Eric Garcetti said Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.”

“This is a virus that preys off of our weakness, preys off of our exhaustion,” Mr. Garcetti said. “I think the vaccine has made everybody so hopeful that they can relax their behavior. We cannot let up.”

The surge has caused cases in homeless shelters to spike as well, with the amount of infections doubling among the homeless population since last month.

[See the latest case numbers in the state.]

  • A new variant of the coronavirus has been discovered in Big Bear after one person had contact with a traveler from Britain. [Los Angeles Times]

  • An outbreak at a San Jose hospital may be linked to someone who wore an inflatable costume inside the hospital’s emergency department. [The New York Times]

  • Bay Area intensive care units reported their lowest availability yet, at close to 5 percent. In Santa Clara County, some ambulances waited for up to seven hours for patient beds to open up. [San Francisco Chronicle]

  • In the San Joaquin Valley, medical professionals fear that many in the public still fail to grasp the dangers of Covid-19. [The New Yorker]


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