Jamie Beck (right) listens as Renuka Zellars talks about being brought to the U.S. from India as a child and forced into domestic work. / Photo by Kelly Davis

The Legislature isn’t currently in session, which means most of the work surrounding legislation is happening on the front and back ends – hearings are being held in which lawmakers are feeling out potential bills for next session, and courts are weighing in on the legality of laws that have already been passed.

This week saw quite a bit of both.

Lawmakers Examine ‘Rampant’ Labor Trafficking

Over the last few years, California has enacted a number of laws aimed at helping victims of sex trafficking and making it easier for prosecutors to go after perpetrators.

But another form of trafficking has gotten less attention.

This week, the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state board that investigates government operations and makes policy recommendations, convened a hearing in San Diego focusing on labor trafficking. The commission plans to release a report on the issue next year.

Cynthia Buiza, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center and former policy director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the commission chose San Diego for the hearing because “we know how critical this issue is to border communities.”

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, who spoke at the beginning of the hearing, noted that California “has some of the strongest sex trafficking laws in the country,” but added that “the problem on labor trafficking is that we know much less about it than we do on sex trafficking.”

Her remarks were echoed in testimony by Jamie Beck, president and managing attorney for Free to Thrive, a San Diego nonprofit focused on helping victims of human trafficking.

“There are far more victims of labor trafficking than sex trafficking in California,” Beck said. “Labor trafficking victims are even more isolated from society and less likely to know there’s help for them. They’re more likely to be undocumented and fear deportation if they seek help.”

A 2012 study by San Diego State University Professor Sheldon Zhang used “rampant” to describe labor trafficking among undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrant workers in San Diego County. His study estimated there were at least 37,000 victims of labor trafficking in the region.

Experts who provided testimony to the commission noted the lack of services for victims of labor trafficking and the need for better outreach, but also praised SB 54, California’s so-called “sanctuary state” law that prohibits law enforcement agencies from coordinating with federal immigration authorities.

“It is undeniable that immigration restrictions and labor trafficking are linked,” said Loyola Law School professor Kathleen Kim. “California should continue to protect noncitizen workers from private employer discrimination.”

But even with protections for whistleblowers, prosecuting bad actors is challenging — Kim noted that labor trafficking cases are “extremely difficult cases to investigate and even more difficult to prove” because they often involve threats and coercion versus actual physical harm.

San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan, who also provided testimony to the commission, said her office has had to get creative with how it prosecutes labor exploitation. Getting folks who aren’t in the country legally to cooperate with prosecutors can be difficult. In those cases, Stephan said, her office will expand its investigation to violations that might be easier to prove, like wage theft, workers’ compensation violations, tax evasion and money laundering

Last year, Stephan sponsored AB 589, a bill written by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez that would have made “document servitude” — confiscating a passport or other immigration document to force a person to work — illegal and required employers to provide a Worker’s Bill of Rights explaining labor laws in 12 different languages.

Business advocacy groups opposed the law, calling the bill of rights requirement unnecessary and burdensome. Gov. Gavin Newsom agreed and vetoed the bill.

Stephan said she hopes the bill will get a second chance in the next legislative session.

“There is a lot of work to be done,” she said.

Kelly Davis

Hot in Hearings

By Sacramento standards, Monday’s marathon meeting of the Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications was pure fire.

For hours, lawmakers grilled utility company executives over their recent decision to cut power to certain communities and how they prepared, or failed to prepare, for the extreme weather conditions Californians are experiencing today. While it was acknowledged that San Diego Gas & Electric still has work to do, at least the company doesn’t behave like Pacific Gas & Electric.

The Northern California energy provider was scorched for leaving millions of customers without power in September and October. Some were left in the dark for days, unable to make cell phone calls. More than 30,000 rely on powered medical devices, including oxygen concentrators and motorized wheelchairs.

The state allows utilities to shut off power lines to prevent the ignition of a wildfire during dry and windy conditions, but the blackouts are supposed to be selective. In the meantime, the utilities were expected to find ways to prevent wildfires through better use of technology and equipment.

Last month, PG&E’s CEO, William Johnson, told regulators that he expects to continue relying on safety shutoffs for another decade.

“We thought PGE would use a scalpel when implementing these blackouts,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, “but instead they’ve chosen to use a sledgehammer and told the public, ‘Sorry, suck it up, we’ll fix it in 10 years.’ … This is a utility that has not invested appropriately in infrastructure while paying dividends to shareholders.”

Johnson was defensive out of the gate. He said the risk of wildfire has exploded in only a few years, which for his industry is a blink of an eye. His company has invested $30 billion in its transmission and distribution assets over the last decade, he said. He was vague, however, when pressed on how that money was being used to minimize disruptions.

Later, he conceded that the company had been “a little complacent.”

SDG&E, on the other hand, was held up by members of the committee as an example of what long-term wildfire planning might look like.

Caroline Winn, the company’s COO, told the committee that the deadly wildfires of 2007 changed the company’s DNA “from a culture of keeping the lights on, which we’re proud of, to keeping our communities safe.” It invested in weather forecasting and made improvements to its equipment that allowed for more targeted blackouts.

During the recent Santa Ana winds, according to the company’s filings with the state, about 25,000 accounts were shut off, ranging from a few minutes to a couple days. It was a fraction of what many PG&E customers experienced.

Going forward, Winn said the company knows there’s a need among medically vulnerable customers for more backup generators. It’s also looking to underground more of its power lines and looking at technology that can quickly shutoff electricity to a fallen wire before it hits the ground.

Jesse Marx

Challenges to Laws on Felony Murder, Sanctuary and Trump Taxes

Prosecutors around the state, including the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, have argued that a new state law amending the felony murder rule is unconstitutional. Under the previous rules, a person who played a relatively minor role in a crime that resulted in murder could be held responsible for the murder.

So, for example, someone who helped plan a robbery – but didn’t actually kill anyone – could be treated the same as the actual killer. That’s, in fact, what happened to Adnan Khan, the first person released under the new law and who’d helped campaign for reforms while in prison. Khan was found guilty only of intent to commit a robbery. But because of the old felony murder rule, his sentence was for first-degree murder.

This week, California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal rejected the San Diego DA’s office’s argument that the law inappropriately amended two voter-approved initiatives.

“Justice won today,” state Sen. Nancy Skinner said in a statement. “The appellate court got it right: SB 1437, which reformed California’s old, unfair felony-murder rule, is clearly constitutional. With this decisive decision, I urge district attorneys throughout California to drop their challenges and join with AG Xavier Becerra in enforcing the state’s new felony-murder statute.”

I asked DA’s office spokesman Steve Walker whether they plan to appeal the ruling further.

“We’re currently reviewing the court’s decision,” he wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, San Diego County supervisors are still siding with the Trump administration over the state’s so-called sanctuary laws that seek to limit local law enforcement’s interactions with federal immigration authorities.

They voted this week to join an amicus brief supporting the Trump administration’s challenge to the law before it’s submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal appeals court mostly upheld the laws earlier this year.

And Trump won a round against California this week.

The California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a new state law requiring presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns in order to appear on the primary ballot violates the state Constitution.

Sara Libby

Golden State News

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