COVID-19, Protests Prompt New Laws in 2021 Across U.S.
January 4, 2021
The start of the new year brings more than just hope for the end of the pandemic. In states across the country, new laws and regulations will be going into effect, including some aimed at addressing worker safety, affordable health care and other issues that emerged this year from the coronavirus. Others target matters like racial inequality and policing that were thrust into the national spotlight in 2020.
In many statehouses, lawmakers worked remotely for much of the year because of the pandemic. That also led to some truncated legislative sessions—and to far fewer laws being passed than in a typical year in states like California and Illinois.
Here is a look at some of the new laws for 2021:
In California, employers must notify workers of a possible workplace exposure to Covid-19 within one business day and report an outbreak within 48 hours to local public-health officials. In a major expansion of the state’s family leave program, employers with at least five employees must now offer at least 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to take care of new children or sick family members.
Connecticut also is expanding its family leave program, which will be funded by a 0.5% tax on worker wages that begins in January. Starting in 2022, workers will get paid time off for up to 12 weeks to care for a new child or seriously ill family member, with weekly benefits topping out at $780.
New York requires all employers to offer sick leave. Companies with five or more employees or net income of more than $1 million must give paid time off, and smaller companies can offer unpaid leave.
The minimum wage increases in about half the states, including Maryland, Arkansas and Vermont. Florida joined a few other states and cities in aiming to get baseline pay to $15 an hour; the rate will rise to $10 an hour in September, with annual increases until 2026.
In California, app-based and delivery drivers won’t be classified as employees and will be exempted from state laws governing minimum wage, paid sick leave and other labor protections after voters approved a ballot measure sponsored by Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc. and other companies. Under the new law, the companies will offer some benefits to employees including mileage reimbursement and contributions toward health care.
Health and Medical Costs
Virginia and Georgia have new laws aimed at curbing surprise medical bills. Virginia’s law protects insured patients from being billed by out-of-network providers for emergency care, or for surgeries and some other scheduled procedures performed at in-network hospitals.
Diabetics will have greater drug-pricing protections in seven more states. New Mexico created the lowest 30-day cap for insulin payments at $25. Virginia’s new cap is $50, and others including Illinois and Washington are limiting monthly insulin costs to $100.
Oklahoma will expand its Medicaid coverage starting in July, the result of a voter-approved constitutional amendment that came after years of resistance from Republican legislators and the governor’s office. The expansion is expected to help an additional estimated 215,000 low-income residents.
Policing, Crime and Drugs
The killing of George Floyd in May after a Minnesota police officer pressed his knee to Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes prompted several statehouses to put a ban on the chokehold maneuver used in his killing. California, Delaware, Iowa, New York, Oregon and Utah all passed some form of chokehold ban. Connecticut banned chokeholds as part of a broader law reforming policing in the state, which has some elements taking effect in January, including requiring officers to wear a badge in a prominent place. Some antichokehold measures failed in other states.
Georgia makes it a hate crime to target someone because they are a police officer. The law, opposed by civil-rights groups, followed the passage of a broader hate-crimes law that increased the prison sentences in crimes motivated by a victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation or other bias. Legislators passed that law after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was fatally shot after being pursued by three white men while he was on a run. The passage left three states with no law punishing crimes based on bias.
Beginning in March, officers in Virginia won’t be able to stop or search someone solely based on smelling marijuana.
More states continue to legalize recreational marijuana use through ballot measures or legislative changes, including Arizona, South Dakota, Montana and New Jersey. Oregon in February will become the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all illegal drugs after voters approved of the change. The northwest state’s voters also legalized the use of psilocybin—the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms—for mental-health treatment.
In California, some inmates who worked in prison fire camps fighting deadly wildfires will have their criminal records expunged when they are released. Separately, people who were arrested but never convicted and low-level offenders will have their criminal records automatically expunged after completing their jail sentences, a move aimed at making it easier for those people to find housing and employment.
New Hampshire expands its definition of sexual assault to include sexual contact between school employees and students between ages 13 and 18. The law previously said teenagers 16 and older could consent to such contact. The state also implements a comprehensive bill aimed at addressing sexual violence on college campuses.
Other Notable Laws
Several states are cracking down on cellphone use on the road. Virginia is making it illegal to hold a cellphone while driving, expanding on a prior law that banned such use in work zones, or reading or typing on devices while driving. California, which has had stringent rules for years, increased penalties for texting and driving. And Arizona is imposing fines for holding a phone while driving.
Illinois makes it possible for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking to keep identifying information like home addresses private.
Oregon joins more than a dozen other states and the District of Columbia in allowing state residents to apply for a driver’s license without showing proof of U.S. citizenship status.
Private colleges in New Mexico must now provide prospective students with a long list of disclosures, including the total estimated cost of attendance, graduation rates for their program and average combined student loan debt for those graduating.
Publicly held corporations headquartered in California will be required to have at least one member of boards of directors be part of a racial or ethnic minority group or LGBT by the end of 2021.
Georgia requires physical therapists and physical-therapy assistants to undergo an Federal Bureau of Investigation background check to get a license.
In Florida, it is now illegal to bet on greyhound or other dog races, effectively ending the dog-racing practice there.