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By Miriam Raftery

July 14, 2015 (Sacramento) – A bill to protect grocery workers from being fired because of changes in store ownership has been approved by the full State Senate with a 22-14 vote.  Assembly Bill 359, authored by San Diego Democratic Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez, previously passed the Assembly with a 46- to 27 vote and will now be submitted to Gov. Jerry Brown for signature.

The measure has support of labor unions seeking to protect workers’ jobs but was opposed by the California Chamber of Commerce, which dubbed it a “job killer” bill for employers.

AB 359 protects grocery workers working in stores of at least 15,000 square feet from being fired during a 90-day transition period if the grocery store is undergoing a change of ownership. After  that transition period, the new employer must provide a written performance evaluation and consider an offer of continued employment if the evaluation is satisfactory. Employers would retain the right to terminate an employee for cause at any time during and following the transition period.

California currently has an estimated 383,900 employees of large grocery stores who could be protected by AB 359 from losing their jobs during large grocery mergers.

The cities of San Francisco, Santa Monica and Los Angeles have adopted have local ordinances containing similar protections to retain workers. AB359 would not be the first worker retention bill of its kind in California, since janitorial maintenance employees are currently protected during a change of contractor at a worksite under the Displaced Janitor Opportunity Act (SB 20, 2001).

Gonzalez says, "Grocery jobs are anchors in our community that sustain the middle class and provide a connection between the neighborhood and the food they feed their families.” She says her bill “keeps the most skilled workers on the job even through high level Wall Street wheeling and dealing."

AB 359 was presented on the Senate floor by Sen. Connie M. Leyva (D-Chino), who helped pay her way through college as a grocery store employee until a corporate takeover of the grocery store chain she worked for left her without a job  Leyva says AB 359 creates a “common sense protection for grocery workers during a difficult time of transition that helps to strengthen California families and communities."

But the California Chamber argues that the bill inappropriately alters the employment relationship and increases frivolous litigation by requiring employers to keep on employees following a merger, unless the employee has an unsatisfactory job evaluation.  A summary by the Chamber states, “AB 359 unfairly forces grocery employers to hire a predecessor’s employees, undermines the at-will employment presumption in California, and ensures continued union representation, despite any change in employers.”   The Chamber contends that by denying employers the right to choose their own employees, the measure  also “discourages investment in grocery establishments and jeopardizes jobs.”

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