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New year brings slew of new laws for restaurants

By now, restaurateurs in 18 states likely know the minimum wage rose in their areas on Jan. 1, to a nationwide high of $11.50 in Washington. Yet those aren’t the only changes mandated for restaurants by the more than 40,000 state and local laws that took effect on Jan. 1. Here are some of the lesser-noticed requirements and restrictions a law-abiding establishment needs to heed.

Job-interview limits and other ‘can’t asks’

In California, it’s now illegal for restaurateurs or other employers to ask about a prospective hire’s compensation and benefits history. Yet the employer is required to provide a range of pay if the applicant asks. The measure is intended to shift the balance of power in workers’ favor during compensation negotiations.

Nor can applicants be asked in an initial interview or on an application form if they’ve ever been arrested. A background check of past criminal activity also has to wait until an offer is actually made, though it can be on a conditional basis. The law goes farther than most so-called ban-the-box laws, which prohibit companies from asking applicants about arrests that didn’t end in convictions. It’s intended to combat recidivism within one of the nation’s most strained penal systems, and applies to any employer of more than five people.

In a lighter vein, Vermont employers are now prohibited from asking employees for access to their social media accounts, a restriction already in place within the majority of states as a privacy safeguard.

New form of paid leave

New York is breaking new ground on benefits with paid family leave, which is different from paid sick leave. Under the former, qualifying employees are entitled to up to eight weeks of paid leave time this year and 12 weeks in 2021 to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child. They can also use the time to care for a seriously ill family member or help relatives adjust to a family member being deployed overseas on active military duty.

The administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo calls it “a pivotal next step in the pursuit of equality and dignity in both the workplace and home.”

Part-time employees are eligible for paid family leave after working 175 days in total for a company. Full-timers are eligible after working at least 20 hours per week for 26 consecutive weeks.

The pay is funded by a tax on employees' compensation. But employers must guarantee the job is held for the employee on leave, and the company is required to continue making its regular contributions for the staffer’s healthcare coverage.

Currently, only California and Rhode Island have a similar law in effect.

Meanwhile, Washington restaurants will be required to provide paid sick leave, at the rate of one hour per 40 hours worked.

Allergy precautions

Restaurants in Illinois are now required to have their managers undergo food allergy awareness training within 30 days of being hired, and to have at least one certified program graduate on duty while the place is in operation.

The training has to be repeated every three years.

The legislation was drafted in collaboration with the Illinois Restaurant Association. Five other states have similar laws on the books.

Restaurant critics’ rights

Restaurant customers who fear retribution for slamming a place on Yelp or other citizen-reviewer sites can now act without reservation in Illinois. The Land of Lincoln now has a law on the books that guarantees consumers the right to post a review, good or bad. ABC called it the most interesting new state law in the nation.

New food laws

Among the government developments likely to be monitored closely by restaurants nationwide is Seattle’s tax on sugared soft drinks, which took effect Monday. The levy of 1.75 cents per fluid ounce falls on distributors, but the cost is almost certainly to be passed along to retailers like restaurants. The effect of a similar tax in Chicago was so detrimental to local businesses that the measure was reversed. Meanwhile, operators in Philadelphia say they’ve felt the squeeze of a soft drink tax there, and studies have shown that consumption dropped precipitously in Berkeley, Calif., when it became the first municipality to levy a surcharge.

The Seattle measure isn’t the only one intended to steer restaurant customers away from certain products. It is now illegal in Nevada for places to serve genuine shark fin soup.

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