SACRAMENTO -- A bill that would set criminal penalties for withholding an employee's final wages has been approved by the Legislature.

AB2187, by Assemblyman Juan Arambula, I-Fresno, passed the Senate on a 21-14 vote.

For withholding final wages longer than 90 days after they're due, an employer could incur a fine of up to $10,000 and jail time of up to six months. The employer would also be responsible for the expense of a successful prosecution.

Several unions support the bill. A diverse list of industry and business groups oppose it, including the California Farm Bureau Federation and Western Growers. They argue the bill is unnecessary because the law already makes it a misdemeanor to withhold wages.

But the Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, which wrote the bill, said it is necessary because current law doesn't specify penalties, allowing leeway for a court to suspend penalties or employee restitution.

Opponents say the bill would make criminals of employers who have legitimate disputes over wage claims, which could take longer to resolve than the 90 days that would trigger penalties.

Opponents also argue that the bill's language is vague, and could be used to pressure an employer during a lawsuit over wage claims, which could drag out for months or years.

The bill's language also targets managers and other personnel. That's unfair, opponents argue, because it could hold employees responsible for carrying out the will of an employer.

The bill is now in line for the governor's desk.

-- Wes Sander

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