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California's strong labor laws aren't enough to protect workers, report says

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California's strong labor laws aren't enough to protect workers, report says

Although California has some of the toughest labor laws in the country, a new study has found workers routinely suffer violations while on the job.

A team of researchers from UC San Francisco and Harvard University earlier this year surveyed 980 California workers at dozens of the state’s largest retail, food and other service sector companies. The workers reported frequent abuses over pay, work schedules and other issues.

The study found, for example, that 41% of the workers surveyed had experienced at least one serious violation of federal labor in the last year, such as being required to work off the clock, not being paid overtime, or being paid less than minimum wage, according to the report, which was released this week.

Violations around paid sick leave and meal breaks were also common, the researchers found. More than half of workers, 58%, were not given proper rest breaks.

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All told, 91% of the workers surveyed experienced at least one violation in the last year, the study found.

The findings seemed at odds with the fact that California has led the way in raising labor standards, said one of the study’s authors, Daniel Schneider, a professor of social policy and sociology at Harvard He and his co-author, Kristen Harknett, a UCSF sociology professor, wanted to understand why the state’s rigorous laws weren’t doing more to protect workers from abuse.

The survey of workers, Schneider said, showed it was common for workers not to report problems. Many, he said, “have been robbed of their time and their wages and the vast majority do not come forward.”

Schneider said the study found that workers who came forward to report problems to someone inside their company were often met with retaliation or other negative consequences, and that workers are unlikely to seek help from regulatory bodies such as the state labor commissioner.

“This is not to say that the laws are ineffective, but that their full promise isn’t realized when they are being violated so routinely,” Schneider said. “We need a robust system of enforcement to ensure these labor laws are being enforced and complied with.”

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The results of the new study come against the backdrop of renewed debate over a controversial California law known as the Private Attorneys General Act that gives workers the right to file lawsuits against their employers over back wages and to seek civil penalties on behalf of themselves, other employees and the state of California.

An initiative seeking to gut the act will appear on the ballot in November, the culmination of a long-running effort by business groups to scrap it.

Backers of the ballot initiative argue the law has resulted in a slew of lawsuits that small businesses and nonprofits have little ability to fight, and say that the long, costly lawsuits workers must pursue result in their getting less money than if they had filed complaints through state agencies.

Although not an expert on the law, Schneider said he believes there should be “more avenues for workers to come forward, to pursue some kind of redress, not fewer.”

The recent study is limited in scope, Schneider said, and does not capture the experiences of undocumented workers or those in domestic, agricultural and construction jobs where violations may be even more common.

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Since the survey focused on workers at large firms, it leaves out service sector workers employed at smaller firms, which also likely experience violations at higher rates, he said.

Another study published this month by researchers at Rutgers University found that minimum wage violations have more than doubled in some major metro areas in California since 2014.

Workers in the Los Angeles, San Jose and San Diego metro areas who had been paid below minimum wage lost on average about 20% of the money they were owed, or as much as $4,000 a year, the study found.

In the San Francisco area, losses were even more steep, with workers losing an average of $4,300 to $4,900 annually to minimum wage violations, according to the study.

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Dozens of shuttered 99 Cents Only stores could reopen under a familiar name: Dollar Tree

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Dozens of shuttered 99 Cents Only stores could reopen under a familiar name: Dollar Tree

Dozens of recently closed 99 Cents Only stores across the Southland could reopen with another bargain retailer’s logo outside: Dollar Tree.

The Chesapeake, Va.-based company, which operates hundreds of Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores in California, reportedly made a bid on about 100 recently shuttered locations of 99 Cents Only, which announced last month that it was going out of business, according to a LinkedIn post from Bill Read, executive vice president of the real estate firm Retail Specialists.

The development, first reported by the Orange County Register, involves a handful of stores in Arizona, Nevada and Texas, but the vast majority are in Southern California, including in Lancaster, North Hollywood, Burbank, Long Beach and Riverside, according to Read’s post.

Dollar Tree did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A representative for 99 Cents Only could not be reached.

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The 99 Cents Only chain — a longtime icon of L.A.’s discount retail world — started in 1982 with a single store on La Tijera Boulevard and expanded rapidly.

Before the City of Commerce company abruptly announced its closure in April — citing several factors, including shifting consumer demands and inflation — the chain had 371 locations.

But shelves quickly emptied out during liquidation sales, and several of the locations today are covered in graffiti.

Dollar Tree has faced financial turmoil of its own.

In 2014, Dollar Tree Inc. announced a plan to buy its big rival Family Dollar Stores Inc. for more than $8 billion — an acquisition that, according to the company’s website, brought its total to 15,000 stores. But this year, Dollar Tree announced a plan to close nearly 1,000 locations, including about 600 Family Dollar stores, in the first half of 2024, as well as several other Dollar Tree stores in the years ahead.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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OpenAI forms safety and security committee as concerns mount about AI

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OpenAI forms safety and security committee as concerns mount about AI

ChatGPT creator OpenAI on Tuesday said it formed a safety and security committee to evaluate the company’s processes and safeguards as concerns mount over the use of rapidly developing artificial intelligence technology.

The committee is expected to take 90 days to finish its evaluation. After that, it will present the company’s full board with recommendations on critical safety and security decisions for OpenAI projects and operations, the firm said in a blog post.

The announcement comes after two high-level leaders, co-founder Ilya Sutskever and fellow executive Jan Leike, resigned from the company. Their departures raised concerns about the company’s priorities, because both had been focused on the importance of ensuring a safe future for humanity amid the rise of AI.

Sutskever and Leike led OpenAI’s so-called superalignment team, which was meant to create systems to curb the tech’s longterm risks. The group was tasked with “scientific and technical breakthroughs to steer and control AI systems much smarter than us.” Upon his departure, Leike said OpenAI’s “safety culture and processes have taken a backseat to shiny products.”

OpenAI’s new safety and security committee is led by board chair Bret Taylor, directors Adam D’Angelo and Nicole Seligman and Chief Executive Sam Altman. Multiple OpenAI technical and policy leaders are on the committee as well. OpenAI said that it will “retain and consult with other safety, security and technical experts to support this work.”

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The committee’s formation arrives as the company begins work on training what it calls its “next frontier model” for artificial intelligence.

“While we are proud to build and release models that are industry-leading on both capabilities and safety, we welcome a robust debate at this important moment,” OpenAI said in its blog post.

Controversies about use of AI have dogged the San Francisco-based company, including in the entertainment business, which is worried about the technology’s implications for intellectual property and the potential displacement of jobs.

Actor Scarlett Johansson criticized the company last week over its handling of a ChatGPT voice feature that she and others said sounded eerily like her. Johansson, who voiced an AI program in the Oscar-winning Spike Jonze movie “Her,” said she was approached by Altman with a request to provide her voice, but she declined, only to later hear what sounded like her voice in an OpenAI demo.

OpenAI said that the voice featured in the demo was not Johansson’s, but another actor’s. After Johansson raised the alarm, OpenAI put a pause on its voice option, “Sky,” one of many human voices available on the app. An OpenAI spokesperson said the formation of the safety committee was not related to the issues involving Johansson.

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OpenAI is best known for ChatGPT and Sora, a text to video tool that has major potential ramifications for filmmakers and studios.

OpenAI and other tech companies have been holding discussions with Hollywood, as the entertainment industry grapples with the long-term effects of AI on employment and creativity.

Some film and TV directors have said AI allows them to think more boldly, testing ideas without having the constraints of limited visual effects and travel budgets. Others worry that increased efficiency through AI tools could whittle away jobs in areas like makeup, production and animation.

As it faced safety questions, OpenAI’s business, which is backed by Microsoft, also must deal with competition from other companies that are building their own artificial intelligence tools and funding.

San Francisco-based Anthropic has received billions of dollars from Amazon and Google. On Sunday, xAI, which is led by Elon Musk, announced it closed on a $6-billion funding round that goes toward research and development, building its infrastructure and bringing its first products to market.

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California is making restaurants tell the truth about prices. Will it give you sticker shock?

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California is making restaurants tell the truth about prices. Will it give you sticker shock?

California restaurants finally have their answer: They, too, must comply with a new state law that bans unadvertised fees, surcharges and other costs tacked onto the end of the bill.

Starting July 1, restaurants will join thousands of other California businesses, including event ticket sellers, short-term rental apps, hotels and food delivery services, that are required to include all mandatory fees and charges in the prices they display or advertise.

The state attorney general’s office gave conflicting statements in the weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the measure into law last year, telling some news outlets that restaurants could continue to keep their current prices while listing any surcharges on their menus, and others that the surcharges had to be included in the prices themselves.

On Wednesday Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta’s office released a set of guidelines to clarify that issue and answer other questions about how businesses must comply with the new law. Bonta sponsored the measure, Senate Bill 478, along with its co-authors, state Sens. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley).

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For restaurants, that means it will no longer be enough to just list service charges and surcharges on a bill or a menu’s fine print. Instead, these charges must be included in the prices printed on the menu.

For example, a $20 mole enchilada at a restaurant that levies a 5% fee to cover employee health costs will have to be listed on the menu as a $21 mole enchilada. And a flier advertising a $10 lunch buffet at a restaurant that adds a mandatory 10% “service charge” will have to refer to the offer as an $11 lunch buffet.

In a statement, the Golden Gate Restaurant Assn. said Bonta’s guidelines “will create significant challenges for the restaurant industry moving forward.”

The association, which advocates for the restaurant industry, argues that by prohibiting the longtime practice of using service charges to increase staff pay or cover the cost of local ordinances — such as San Francisco’s requirement that businesses spend at least a minimum amount on healthcare services — the law will compound the problems faced by an already struggling industry.

“Diners will not pay less, instead they will see significant menu price increases, which we believe will further cause them to pull back on dining out,” the statement said. “Not only will restaurants struggle, but workers will lose hours and jobs.”

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With few exceptions, businesses of all sorts across California will not be able to advertise, display or offer a price for their goods or services that does not include all of the “mandatory fees or charges” other than government-imposed taxes or fees or reasonable shipping costs, according to the measure’s authors.

“Put simply, the price a Californian sees should be the price they pay,” Bonta’s office said in a news release.

The new law doesn’t dictate what companies charge for their goods or services. Businesses will still be able to set prices, but the posted price will need to match the full amount a customer will see on their final bill.

Though businesses can exclude taxes and shipping charges, handling fees must be included. In other words, actual postage or delivery charges can be excluded, while the cost of pulling an item off a shelf and taking it to a shipping company has to be included in its advertised price.

Separate fees for optional services or features do not need to be advertised. This could extend to a bevy of industries and services — for example, the amount an airline charges for a seat upgrade or checked bags.

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What about late fees or extra charges for customers who smoke in a hotel room? Because those charges can be avoided, they do not have to be advertised, according to the guidelines from Bonta’s office.

Businesses will not be allowed to skirt the law by advertising one price and then letting customers know that additional fees might be added later. A business can, however, list the full price of its product and provide customers a breakdown of all the fees that are included.

Bonta also offered some guidance for businesses that say they do not know up front what the final cost will be once their work is done. Such businesses “should wait to display a price until they know how much they will charge,” the guidelines say.

This could affect how live music fans interact with ticket sellers for concerts and other live events. The nonprofit watchdog Consumer Reports noted that hidden fees can increase the price of live-event tickets by 30% to 40%.

Live Nation Entertainment, parent company of ticketing giant Ticketmaster, said in a statement that it supported SB 478 and has already offered all-in pricing at some venues and festivals across the country. “Unfortunately, we routinely see resellers defy state laws requiring all-in pricing which confuses and harms fans, so we strongly encourage regulatory scrutiny to ensure compliance across the industry,” the company said.

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The Virginia-based Travel Technology Assn., a global network of online travel agents, said it views transparency as a top priority but opposed SB 478 and would rather see a uniform national standard for regulations on lodging prices.

“We take this position to create uniformity and certainty for lodging operators, travel technology companies, and most of all, travelers, who will have a better understanding of what is included in advertised prices for trips both in and out of their home state,” President and Chief Executive Laura Chadwick said in a statement.

The online travel company Expedia opposed the bill for similar reasons.

In response to the argument, Bonta said that California does not need to wait for federal action to ensure transparency for consumers. The practice of hiding mandatory charges, he said in a statement, “is deceptive and unfair to consumers wherever it occurs — not just in certain industries.”

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