Ellen Savage Reflects on 30-Year Career as Labor Law Expert

In this episode of The Workplace podcast, CalChamber Associate General Counsel Matthew Roberts interviews former CalChamber employment law expert Ellen Savage to revisit memorable lessons from her 35-year career at the CalChamber.

Savage retired earlier this month, after serving as an employment law expert for the CalChamber for 35 years.

Savage first worked for the CalChamber’s legislative department while she attended law school. She then worked for the Labor Law Helpline when it was launched. She traveled and did seminars, and wrote and updated the California Labor Law Digest. She also wrote the California Hiring and Termination Guide, as well as the forms and checklists that are still available on the HRCalifornia website.

“I’m one of those really lucky people who loves my job,” she tells Roberts. “Our members are wonderful. I love being able to help them solve everyday problems, give them resources they can actually use.”

Memorable Calls

One of Savage’s most memorable calls, she says, is when an HR director called asking about pregnancy disability leave.

She kept putting Savage on hold and then would return to the call, but Savage just thought it was because the director was busy. Savage later learned that the director was in the hospital in active labor, trying to find information about her own right to take pregnancy disability leave.

“It was a call I will never forget,” she says.

The workplace can be a crazy place and over the years people have asked some interesting questions.

When colored hair dye became trendy, some employers wanted to know what they could say to an employee who came in with a bright hair color.

It depends on the workplace, Savage says. Is it a warehouse where a customer won’t see the employee, or is the employee a receptionist at a fancy financial planning firm?

“Set your expectations on business dress and grooming—as an employer, you’ve got a right to set those,” she says.

Employers should keep in mind, however, that California now has a law that states that hair styles that are connected to race or culture, like dreadlocks, are protected.

Savage also recalls when an employer called the Helpline because someone was stealing the office’s expensive fish and the employer wanted to set up a secret camera to find the fish thief.

California law, however, gives employees some expectation of privacy, so in order to set up a camera, the employer must let people know there is a camera.

Workplace Culture Changes

When Savage first started her career, California did not have a mandatory sick leave law, and while many employers offered it, some employers did not. Automatic meal period penalties also didn’t exist.

Sexual harassment was accepted as normal, including conversations, words, jokes and posters in the workplace.

“You just kind of had to accept it. There was no sexual harassment training,” she said.

Business attire policies could tell women they had to wear dresses or skirts, and could include “no pants” policies.

Savage recalls a time, in the 1990s, when a woman she knew wore a trendy culotte pants suit. The pants looked like a skirt, but the woman was still sent home to change because it violated her company’s no pants policy.

“We’re kind of in a different world from that now,” she says.

There also weren’t laws forbidding smoking in the workplace, so an employee could smoke at their desk all day long.

And there were no local ordinances.

Biggest Lessons

Savage’s years and experience as a labor law expert has taught her many things, but one the of the biggest lessons she has learned is that employers should treat employees with respect.

Second, employers should keep up with changes in the law.

She advises employers to use the CalChamber’s services, visit the HRCalifornia website and HRWatchdog blog.

“I am not being paid a dime to say this, but honestly, I think the [Cal]Chamber is an amazing resource. It’s affordable. I would advise a new HR person to join the [Cal]Chamber, use all the resources, call the Helpline so you don’t blow it and you don’t miss the newest, craziest California law, and you’re not the one that’s the next big test case in front of the California Supreme Court.”

The California Chamber of Commerce is the largest, broad-based business advocate to government in California, working at the state and federal levels to influence government actions affecting all California business. As a not-for-profit, we leverage our front-line knowledge of laws and regulations to provide affordable and easy-to-use compliance products and services.