Quick Take:

As of Jan. 1, a number of new state laws went into effect. Lookout takes a closer look at a handful of them to assess how they might affect Santa Cruz County residents.

With the new year come new laws. Below is a rundown of a few of the state laws that took effect on Jan. 1 and how they will affect things locally.

Senate Bill 3: Minimum wage increase

Beginning Jan. 1, many employees statewide will be making a slightly higher wage. Companies with 25 employees or fewer will be required to pay $14 per hour, while companies with more than 26 employees will have to pay $15 per hour.

For many Santa Cruz businesses and their employees, the change won’t amount to much. Emily Ham, executive director for Santa Cruz County Business Council, told Lookout that she believes the hospitality and restaurant industries may be most impacted by the bill, but many businesses locally already pay above the new state minimum.

“They have to incentivize people to work here — we’re ahead in that sense,” she said.

For example, since July 1 of this year, the required living wage for companies that do business with the county is $18.10. If benefits are not provided, the wage increases to $19.74. That rate is the same for Santa Cruz and Capitola city contractors.

From an unofficial survey of the business council’s membership, Ham found that most employers felt the wage increase was both “long overdue” and “already in practice.”

“The minimum wage really impacts how we create a more competitive county for people to start a business in…regardless of the industry, you have to pay more to live here,” she said.

Syringes at the Marin County Vaccination Point of Dispensary
READ THE SERIES: CZU — One Year Later Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Senate Bill 332: Limiting liability for prescribed control burns

This past September, the California legislature voted to increase protections for professionals who had set prescribed burns, in efforts to prevent high-intensity fires and related ecosystem issues.

Under the previous law, anyone — professional or not — responsible for personally, negligently, or illegally setting fire to public or private property is liable for damages, costs for investigations, and related administrative costs.

Experts say this incentivizes the burning of dry trees and brush, helping to reduce the chance and impact of a prolonged wildfire such as the CZU Lightning Complex one in 2020.

“While the impact of this new bill has yet to be seen once it goes into effect, anything to reduce the fuel loads that have built up over the years could be a step in the right direction,” said spokesperson Cecile Juliette of San Mateo County Fire Department.

Masked students, many in close proximity, sit at desks arranged in a U shape
Students are masked in Peter Chau’s summer school English class at Hawthorne High. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Assembly Bill 101: Ethnic studies

Beginning with the graduating class of 2029-30, a semester-long course on ethnic studies will be required to graduate from high school after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 101 in October. The law also requires that high schools start offering ethnic studies courses in the 2025-26 school year. What remains to be seen is what curriculum each school district will be using — though a model was developed as part of the law itself.

The law doesn’t require the school districts to use the new model curriculum, it only encourages them to adopt one based on it. Locally, County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said a committee is now working on doing just that. However, the law explicitly asks that school districts not adopt a previous curriculum rejected by the commission. In a letter addressed to the California State Assembly, Newsom wrote that he was thankful the law made that request, “due to concerns related to bias, bigotry, and discrimination.”

Assembly Bill 1377: Higher education housing affordability

This new law requires the California State University system, and requests the University of California system, to develop a student housing needs assessment for each campus each July for the coming academic year until 2027. It also requires and requests, respectively, that the systems create a student housing plan which addresses how the needs will be met. At UC Santa Cruz, 8% of students reported experiencing homelessness in 2020, according to the UC’s 2021 Accountability Report. The law does not explicitly address why one system is mandated to do this while the other is asked to do so.

UCSC says it houses more students on campus than any other school in the system, with just over half living in on-campus housing. Still, students face cramped and expensive housing options on campus and off-campus. While about 18,600 students are estimated to attend UCSC this year, the school is planning for that number to increase to about 28,000 by 2040, according to its 2021 Long Range Development Plan. The plan — which is a framework— includes a goal of providing housing for 8,500 of those new students. Critics of the plan say it is unlikely this can or will be accomplished.

Senate Bill 14 and Senate Bill 224: K-12 Mental health

The pandemic had an enormous impact on the mental health of young people, as a result of loss of loved ones due to COVID-19, social isolation and a wide range of disruptions of routine. Senate Bill 14, which amends the Education Code to include mental and behavioral health issues as a reason for student absences, was signed into law in October. Because of the severity of the pandemic’s impact, it was enacted to take effect immediately.

Sabbah said students in the county have a 90% attendance rate, a 5% drop compared to the rate prior to the pandemic. The law mandates the creation of local programs to address the mental health needs of students and also requires the state reimburse county offices of education, school districts and schools for the creation of those programs.

Sabbah hopes funding will go toward staffing people to do home visits to connect with students who need therapeutic support services. In addition, Senate Bill 224 requires that mental health instruction be added to existing health education courses at middle and high schools.

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