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Labor laws in California and the United States are designed to protect employees from unlawful discrimination. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), signed into law in 1980 by then-Governor Jerry Brown, is the principal anti-discrimination law in California today.

The FEHA also established a policing agency, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). The department was granted the power to investigate, mediate and prosecute discrimination complaints. Today, it is the largest civil rights agency among all fifty states.

California was not always known for its vigorous anti-discrimination efforts. Back in 1850, the new state legislature rescinded Native Americans’ claims on land and other rights of citizenship. African Americans were banned from homesteading public land, sending their children to public schools and using public transportation. In the 1920s and 1930s, the sale or occupation of real property was restricted on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion and social class.

Anti-discrimination legislation was introduced in California in the mid-1940s and early 1950s, but failed to pass the state legislature. In 1959, however, the Fair Employment Practices Act and the Unruh Civil Rights Acts (named for its author, Jesse Unruh) were passed, barring discrimination in the workplace and declaring all Californians “free and equal.”

The Fair Employment and Housing Act was amended in 1992 to reflect federal anti-discrimination laws. The amendment permitted actual damages, punitive damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees to be awarded to the winners of discrimination law suits (except for lawsuits involving the State of California).

In 1993, the California Family Rights Act became law, granting “secure leave” rights to employees for the birth of a child, during placement of a child in the employee’s home for adoption or foster care, for the serious health condition of the employee’s child, parent or spouse, and for the employee’s own serious health condition. The DFEH was given responsibility for enforcing this.

In 2010, a widely-publicized DFEH class action suit against Verizon for violation of the California Family Rights Act resulted in a $6 million settlement. The department alleged Verizon repeatedly violated the statute by denying or delaying employees’ time off for serious health issues, to care for newborns and to take care of seriously ailing relatives. The settlement was the largest in the department’s history and followed a two-year probe by its special investigation unit.

Legally, California is an “employee friendly state.” California businesses are well-advised to keep abreast of anti-discrimination laws, adopt lawful workplace policies and procedures, and to require employees to undergo discrimination awareness and prevention training. Contact our law offices for more information.