California introduces tough new protections for whistleblowers

California has beefed up its protections of whistleblowers and increased penalties for retaliation.

On January 1, 2018, important amendments to California's Labor Code went into effect that could have a big impact on employee rights in the state. The new law gives significant new powers to the Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (more commonly known as the Labor Commissioner) in investigating whistleblower complaints and penalizing employers who retaliate against whistleblowers. While retaliation against whistleblowers has long been illegal in California, the changes to the Labor Code will ensure that fewer instances of retaliation go unpunished.

What the old law did

As California Lawyer notes, whistleblowing about unsafe or illegal conduct by an employer is considered protected conduct under California law. That means that employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who raise concerns about unsafe or illegal work conditions. Prior to January 1, 2018, however, an employee had to make a complaint to the Labor Commissioner within six months of the alleged retaliation for the Labor Commissioner to open up an investigation into the alleged retaliation.

Under the old law, if the Labor Commissioner found that retaliation had occurred against the employee, the Labor Commissioner could send a notification to the employer ordering them to cease and desist and to take actions to remedy the situation. However, the notification lacked any penalties for employers who refused to cooperate and the Labor Commissioner would have to go to court in order to seek injunctive relief, which could include reinstating the employee.

More protections for whistleblowers

With the passage of SB 306 last year, which went into force on January 1, 2018, the Labor Commissioner and whistleblowers themselves now enjoy much broader powers against employers accused of retaliation. For one, the Labor Commissioner will no longer need to receive a complaint from an employee in order to open an investigation into possible retaliation. The Labor Commissioner need only suspect that retaliation has occurred in order to investigate, regardless of whether or not an employee has complained.

The Labor Commissioner will also now have the power to issue citations against employers, including for back pay and for reinstating workers. Also, the standard of proof for seeking injunctive relief has been lowered, making it much easier for workers who have been retaliated against to keep their jobs. Employers also face steep penalties for not abiding by an order or citation issued by the Labor Commissioner.

Protecting employees' rights

The above changes are a big win for employees' rights in California. However, the best way to ensure that one's rights are enforced is to talk to an employment law attorney today . An attorney who is experienced in defending employees, including whistleblowers, against abusive and retaliatory employers will be in the best position to offer guidance to employees who believe their rights may have been violated.