Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
(11-03) 13:30 PST SACRAMENTO -- For the 193,000 state employees who have to take three days off each month without pay, Monday brought a little ray of sunshine: A company that offers them a free breakfast or a cheap ski lift ticket can't be sued for discrimination for not offering the same deal to everyone else.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the furloughs to save the deficit-plagued state $1.3 billion, although a UC Berkeley study last month concluded the savings were barely half that amount.
Some businesses responded by instituting "furlough Fridays," with free meals and discounts for idled state workers. A few then reported getting letters from a San Diego attorney warning that they would be violating California's civil rights law if they charged regular prices to everyone else, including laid-off federal and private-sector employees.
The letters prompted urgent legislation that Schwarzenegger signed Monday. SB367 by Sen. Gloria Negrete-McLeod, D-San Bernardino, says businesses that give a break to customers who suffer wage cuts or lose their jobs aren't guilty of discrimination.
It was good news for Squaw Valley USA, which has been offering discounted ski lift tickets to furloughed state employees for several months.
"We wanted to make it a positive situation for folks that have more free time on their hands, after getting their hours reduced through no fault of their own," said Tom Murphy, the director of resource development for Squaw Valley.
The bill was rushed through both houses without a dissenting vote, reflecting an unusual consensus among the sponsor, Consumer Attorneys of California - lawyers for workers and customers who sue businesses - and the California Chamber of Commerce and California Retailers Association.
"We wanted to make sure that the (civil rights) law was used for its intended purpose," explained Chris Dolan, a San Francisco lawyer and incoming president of the consumer attorneys' group.
Even San Diego lawyer Alfred Rava, who sent the letters to businesses warning of possible lawsuits, said Monday he supports SB367.
What he opposes, Rava said, is a company like Squaw Valley giving discounts only to state employees and not to others whose wages have been cut or eliminated.
E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page C - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle