An explanation of nine new California laws taking effect in 2021. Illustration by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters; iStock
(Illustration by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters; iStock)
Civic Life

New California laws are taking effect: Here’s what you need to know

Fewer laws than usual are taking effect in California this year, given that the coronavirus pandemic shortened and dominated the legislature’s 2020 session.

But some notable laws still took effect as of Jan. 1. Here’s what you need to know, accompanied by a one-minute video about each law.

1. California businesses must report COVID outbreaks

More than nine months after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the first shelter-in-place order due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new state law will require businesses — and the State Health Department — to report more COVID data.

The law requires businesses to notify employees within 24 hours if they’ve been exposed at work. But how that gets reported to the public was watered down after statewide business interests complained that listing companies individually would amount to “shaming” them.

2. California bans chokeholds in all police departments

Earlier this year, in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills banned carotid restraints and chokeholds in his department.

As of this month, California will have its first statewide policy banning police from using a couple of neck restraints: carotid restraints, which temporarily cut off blood flow to the brain, and chokeholds, which temporarily cut off a person’s air.

Though a carotid restraint can be useful when an officer has to quickly get someone under control, there’s little room for error; if an officer’s arm is slightly off, it can crush a person’s larynx and kill them, Mills told Lookout in a November interview. “It’s just too risky for the reward,” he said. “And we can’t afford, as an industry, to hurt people like that, even though they may have placed themselves in a position of jeopardy.”

In addition, the state attorney general will investigate incidents in which police kill anyone who is unarmed.

3. California widens mental health conditions insurers must cover

In the past, state law only required treatment for nine serious mental illnesses. Even before the pandemic, more than half of Californians said most people with mental health conditions couldn’t get the help they needed. Some families even dropped private insurance to qualify for treatment in the public mental health system.

California’s new law will expand the list of conditions commercial insurers must cover. It includes medically necessary care for all mental health and substance use disorders.

4. California expands paid family leave

Starting Jan. 1, 2021, roughly 6 million additional Californians will be able to take family leave with the guarantee that they can come back to their jobs.

The new law, by Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara, extends job protections once reserved for employees of large companies to most workers in California.

5. Cal State requiring ethnic studies class

It was a time of national racial introspection and wide-scale protest. Echoes of then are loud and clear in 2020, and the state’s lawmakers were listening, voting this summer to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement for all California state university students.

6. California eases hiring of ex-inmate firefighters

As California has faced its most devastating wildfire season on record, nearly a third of the people on the frontlines have been state prisoners.

Despite their firsthand experience, many incarcerated people couldn’t become firefighters after being released. A new California law aims to change that and make it easier to hire formerly incarcerated firefighters.

7. California committee to study slavery reparations

A new law — carried by San Diego Democratic Assemblymember Shirley Weber — establishes a nine-person committee to study California’s complicity in slavery, develop proposals on what reparations might look like for descendants of enslaved people, and determine who might get paid.

Reparations can take many forms — they could be direct cash payments or subsidized education and healthcare, or assistance for down payments on housing.

8. California offers tax credits to some undocumented workers

In 2019 Governor Gavin Newsom more than doubled how much money the state spends on its tax credit for low-income workers.

But since its establishment in 2015, the credit has been unavailable for undocumented workers who pay taxes, until now.

9. California closing state youth prisons

This year Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the closure of these state facilities. Under a new law, California’s three remaining youth prisons will no longer accept newly convicted youth after July 2021. Instead, counties will be responsible for young offenders who’ve committed the most serious offenses.

Those counties have until July to create plans to incorporate young people into their current juvenile hall and probation systems, but it’s unclear how much funding they’ll receive from the state.

All videos by Nick Roberts and CalMatters’ reporting team.