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Last year it was Jerry Brown. This summer it’s lunch break litigation. Leveraging the fact that Democrats need their votes to adopt a state budget, Republican lawmakers are once again demanding concessions, this time on labor and environmental regulations. In 2007, Republicans pressured Democrats to curb Attorney General Brown’s authority to sue local agencies over greenhouse gas emissions. This year, in exchange for votes on a budget that’s now a month overdue, the Legislature’s minority party wants something that strikes nearer to the plaintiff bar’s heart: an overhaul of laws mandating overtime pay and meal breaks. Republican leaders won’t say precisely what they’re demanding from majority Democrats. But they’ve made clear in reports and press appearances that they want to make it tougher for workers to sue for overtime and rest-period violations. “We should be looking for ways to make California as competitive as possible, to make sure that our jobs stay here,” Senate Minority Leader Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, said Tuesday in a speech to the Sacramento Press Club. “It’s about trying to make sure that we offer the best opportunities and provide the most in the way of incentives to maintain the business and industries we have here, and hopefully attract new jobs.” David Lowe, a partner with Rudy, Exelrod & Zieff and co-chairman of the California Employment Lawyers Association’s legislative committee, called the GOP proposal “shameful.” “It’s really putting workers in the line of fire for something [Republicans] couldn’t get through the usual legislative process,” Lowe said. Changes in workplace law have no immediate connection to the state budget, and they won’t fill a projected $17.2 billion deficit. But they could come into play during one of the few times of the year when, because of the budget’s two-thirds vote requirement, Republican votes really matter. Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Baldwin Vista, has already said publicly that Republicans’ proposals won’t fly in her caucus. But Lowe was cautious. “We recognize we’re up against powerful adversaries in the Chamber of Commerce and other interests,” he said, “and there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to get the budget completed.” A growing and lucrative field for plaintiff attorneys, wage-and-hour litigation has led to numerous high-profile, multimillion-dollar settlements in recent years. Shanti Atkins, president and CEO of San Francisco’s ELT, an online compliance-training company, said lawyers can often find at least minor violations in most workplaces. And if those missteps affected numerous employees over months or even years, the legal payouts can be enormous. Atkins said that in the arena of federal class actions, wage-and-hour suits are now more common than discrimination or harassment claims. “There’s a lot of wealth to be built in this kind of litigation,” she said. “I call it the new tobacco-style litigation.” California employers are particularly pushing Republicans to ease rules requiring workers to take meal breaks at designated times. “We basically want a re-working of the statute,” said Gino DiCaro, vice president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. “Right now it’s written so poorly that if any employer or employee deviates in any way, a lawsuit can be brought.” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a traditional ally of state business interests, has tried to ease meal and rest break rules. In 2004, the governor proposed emergency regulations that scaled back break requirements and cut statutory penalties on employers. But he quickly rescinded the new rules after an outcry from labor leaders and Democrats. Just this year, state Sen. Ronald Calderon, a moderate Democrat from Montebello, introduced business-backed legislation to give employers and some employees more flexibility in setting meal-period rules. But the provisions of the bill were quickly gutted in a labor committee and replaced with a single sentence noting the Legislature’s “intent” to address meal-break laws. Even so, the bill died in the Senate after one committee hearing.

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