California workers from an industry devastated by the coronavirus pandemic would have a chance to return to the jobs under a bill advanced by the state Assembly this week.

Under the bill, employers in parts of the hospitality industry would have to offer any available jobs first to qualified employees who were laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic. Companies would have five days to do so, and workers would then have five days to decide whether they want to accept the offer.

Employers affected would include hotels, large event centers and airports, among others.

Gov. Gavin Newsom had vetoed a similar bill backed by labor unions such as Unite Here last year, saying it would place “too onerous a burden” on employers.

But with California’s economy reopening and employers hiring, legislators said the state should not leave behind hundreds of low-wage workers in the hospitality industry, many of whom are women of color.

“There is a need to ensure that as we open up, workers are made whole,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said on the Assembly floor.

California’s hospitality industry lost nearly 700,000 jobs by February compared to the start of the pandemic. More than 120,000 hotel workers remain out of work, according to a letter sent to legislators from the California Hotel & Lodging Association.

Some cities such as San Francisco have passed an ordinance requiring some workers to get their jobs back. Sacramento is considering such measure as well, but the bill would expand the right to cover the entire state.

Hiring bill narrowed after Newsom veto

To be rehired, workers would have to have been employed by their employer for at least six months in 2019. Workers are deemed “qualified” only for a position that’s same or similar to what they had before their layoff, according to the bill. If multiple workers qualify for one position, the bill would require companies to rehire based on seniority.

If companies choose to hire someone else because laid-off workers are deemed not to be qualified, the bill would require employers to explain their decision in writing to their former employees within 30 days. The bill would expire Dec. 31, 2024. Companies violating the law would be fined $600 per day per employee affected.

Sen. María Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, at a hearing this week said the bill addresses Newsom’s concerns in several ways. She said the bill now has an expiration date, only covers workers who lost their jobs because of the COVID pandemic and specifies that only the state can enforce the provision — meaning workers can’t sue their employers in court over the provision.

“It’s very narrow this year,” she said.

Assemblyman Ash Kalra, D-San Jose, said the bill would give “justice” for the laid-off workers.

“Justice for those workers has been delayed for well over six months.,” he said on the Assembly floor “We’re just asking for an opportunity for those workers to go back to their place of employment.”

What employers say

Some legislators, however, expressed concerns that the bill is moving forward without going through appropriate committee hearings. The bill got a vote on the Assembly floor just four days after being introduced.

The California Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to legislators opposing the bill, saying it would “micromanage the rehire process.” The bill would slow down the reopening by impeding companies’ ability to rehire workers, wrote Jennifer Barrera, executive vice president of the California Chamber of Commerce.

The bill “forces an employer to repeatedly offer newly available positions to qualified employees, no matter how many times they have turned offers down, failed to respond to previous job offers, or explicitly declined previous offers to return to work,” Barrera wrote.

California should also give more money to hotels to help with their reopening, California Hotel & Lodging Association said in its letter. The group cited a program in Washington D.C. in which the city gave money to struggling hotels to pay for their employees.

“Without complementary funding programs… progress will remain slow and hiring will be uneven and lag significantly,” wrote Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the group.

The bill is expected to get a vote in the California Senate and then head to Newsom’s desk within days.

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