Inland Empire lawmaker seeks protections for businesses amid COVID emergency

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RIVERSIDE (CNS) – An Inland Empire lawmaker announced today that she will amend a bill under consideration in the Assembly in an effort to ensure small businesses are not targeted for state-sanctioned penalties or lawsuits that arise from unemployment audits tied to the coronavirus emergency.

“Small businesses are feeling some of the harshest consequences from the shelter-in-place orders in the wake of coronavirus,” said Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore. “We as lawmakers now need to make sure they are not frivolously targeted by civil actions, penalties and fines that result from the unintended consequences of employees filing for unemployment benefits.”

Melendez said she intends to amend a proposal she submitted in February, AB 2457, which seeks to modify AB 5, the hotly debated measure that took effect Jan. 1.

Currently, AB 2457 only seeks to widen the exemption list pertaining to those workers who now fall under the AB 5 regulations. The law reclassified independent workers under a California Supreme Court ruling, imposing requirements on companies to extend health care benefits and other accommodations to people contracting with them.

Supporters characterized the legislation as a worker protection bill; opponents lambasted it as a job killing measure intended to benefit unions. So-called “app drivers” with Uber and Lyft were impacted by the new legislation, along with writers, interpreters and others.

According to Melendez, the amendment she will write into AB 2457 would prohibit claimants for unemployment benefits from using the civil process for making additional claims against small businesses predicated on AB 5. The amended AB 2457 will further include provisions aimed at barring the California Labor Commissioner’s Office and the Employment Development Department from using audits to determine unemployment benefits as a bridge to imposing AB 5-related penalties.

“AB 5 has not only been a complete disaster for the people who were self-employed and now seeking help, but for the small businesses who are now at risk of audits, fines and lawsuits,” Melendez said.

“I agree with the governor, who said, `So often, we take them for granted, even in the best of times. Right now, they have been devastated,”’ she said. “I hope the governor and my Democrat colleagues will join with me to really help the backbone of our local economies to get them back on their feet.”

The Legislature is slated to return from its COVID-19 recess on May 4.