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Unwilling to wait for action by the California Supreme Court, East Bay Assemblywoman Ellen Corbett is pushing legislation that would require employers to protect workers from harassment by clients and customers. In an opinion in October on an appeal from Los Angeles County Superior Court, a divided 2nd District Court of Appeal panel said state law does not obligate employers to protect workers from harassment by clients and customers, only other employees. Last week, the supreme court agreed to take up the case, Salazar v. Diversified Paratransit, S111876. Corbett, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said she believes state law already mandates such protection, but wants to act now to make sure the law is “crystal clear.” “For one thing, the Supreme Court won’t take up the case until the fall. I think this is a serious situation. There’s no reason to wait to address [it],” Corbett said. An attorney for the defendant in Salazar said Corbett’s claim that state law already mandates such protection is no more than an “assumption” because the issue had never been considered before the 2nd District’s ruling. Harvey Wimer III, managing partner of the Riverside office of Graves & King, said that although federal law affords the broad protection Corbett seeks, state law does not help plaintiff Raquel Salazar, who was attacked by a bus passenger. Either way, Corbett hopes to change things. If both houses pass the bill and Gov. Gray Davis signs it before oral arguments, that would give the justices a clear signal of the legislative intent of Government Code Section � 12940, Corbett said. The bill, co-authored by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, proposes changing only two words in the law: Liability for harassment by “an employee” becomes “any person.” The bill is co-sponsored by the California Labor Federation and the National Organization of Women; several other civil rights and labor groups are also on board. Corbett’s office expects the proposal, AB 76, to get bipartisan support that includes the business community. “We’re hoping that their experts tell them that this returns California law to where everybody thought it was [before the appellate ruling],” said Drew Liebert, chief counsel to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “So this won’t be a big shock to them.” But that support hasn’t materialized. Although the California Chamber of Commerce has not taken an official position, chamber General Counsel Fred Main said he had “concerns” about the bill. “It’s a pretty slippery slope, but we don’t think that California needs to add another protected class to the many laws that employers already face,” Main said. A similar reform to the law was killed in the Senate in 1984.

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