COVID-19 Doesn’t Slow PAGA Lawsuits

Tom Manzo
Founder of the California Business and Industrial Alliance

If crisis-weary Californians were looking for profiles in courage, they didn’t find many in the state’s “chaotic” final day of the legislative session. Most disappointing is the legislature’s inability to provide basic relief for business owners under attack from frivolous lawsuits. 

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic shut down California, trial attorneys didn’t take a break. Since March, more than 3,000 Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) lawsuits have been filed–many against “front line” medical businesses, and others against operators who faced a state-mandated shutdown. (A trade group I founded, CABIA, wrote a letter to the Governor during the pandemic and called for a moratorium on PAGA; the letter drew a reply from the Cal Labor Federation.)     

SB-729, sponsored by Senator Anthony Portantino, offered a modest and common-sense adjustment to PAGA, consistent with the present work from home environment. The bill would “prohibit an employee from recovering civil penalties from an employer under the act for violations of provisions requiring the employer to provide meal and rest breaks, if the employee engaged in remote work as specified.” 

Get that? It basically ensures that an employee can’t sue for a “missed” rest break or lunch break while he is working at home. If that sounds like a no-brainer, you haven’t met the Cal Labor Federation. The opposition argument, which was joined by various unions and the employment lawyers association, said that “basic workplace rights” would be weakened if the law passed.  

It’s unclear how an employee deciding what time to eat lunch at home is a “weakening” of his basic workplace right. If you think it’s a stretch to think someone would sue over this, consider a recent lawsuit filed over the appropriate temperature of the workplace bathroom.  

Who’s profiting from these ludicrous lawsuits? It’s not the employees, that’s for sure. A recent $675k PAGA settlement delivered 93% of the money directly to the pockets of Lawyers for Justice, one of the state’s most prolific PAGA mills. Just $10k went to the lead employee on the complaint, and a measly $33 was paid to each of the other employees. 

California is a pitch-perfect example of what happens when a legislature is “captured” by special interests — in this case, the unions and trial lawyers. The Labor Federation even praises legislators who are “100% labor” voters — that is, they voted for unions over job creators every single time.

If the state’s voters have learned anything from the 2020 session, it’s that they need a better class of representative. 

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