For 2021, States Raise Minimum Wage, Legalize Pot, Expand Paid Leave and More

The coronavirus pandemic brought new responsibilities to state governments in 2020, triggering health care and economic crises that demanded their response. In 2021, trends seen in previous years, such as minimum wage increases and expanded measures for marijuana use and cultivation, will persist, accompanied by new laws indicative of the reality COVID-19 has thrust upon individuals and organizations.

Four states — Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota — passed popular vote measures during the November 2020 elections to legalize recreational cannabis. Of those four, however, only Montana’s and New Jersey’s initiatives will go into effect Jan. 1. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia will have legalized recreational cannabis come 2021, while officials in Kansas have legalized the production of hemp for commercial purposes effective Jan. 1, provided the crops’ THC content does not exceed 0.3%.

Although marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I substance — categorized as a drug without commonly accepted medical use and a strong potential for abuse and dependency — by the Drug Enforcement Administration, 2019 polling from Gallup and the Pew Research Center indicate that about two-thirds of American adults think marijuana use should be legalized.

The federal minimum wage will remain at $7.25 per hour heading into the new year — the same rate since 2009. But several states will be raising their minimum wage on Jan. 1, either as a result of legislation or popular-vote initiatives. Some states — California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey — are incrementally raising their minimum wage throughout 2021 en route to reaching $15 per hour. Several others are basing their increases on cost-of-living estimates often tied to the consumer price index. In total, 24 states will increase their minimum wages come Jan. 1, with most surpassing $10 per hour.

To help curb pollution and waste, a ban on single-use plastic bags takes effect in Delaware as of Jan. 1, requiring retailers to offer reusable bags instead of single-use plastic variants to patrons. The National Conference of State Legislatures counted seven other states that had passed laws banning single-use plastic bags prior to 2020. Washington passed a similar law in 2019 that would go into effect Jan. 1, but delayed the law’s start date by 30 days due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

[READ: States’ Climate Change Efforts Stall During Pandemic]

In December 2019, President Donald Trump signed legislation amending the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, raising the federal minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21. Prior to the federal law, 19 states already had legislation making the sale of tobacco products to those under 21 illegal. On Jan. 1, New Mexico and Tennessee will raise the age requirement for the sale of tobacco products to 21. In New Mexico, the new law also requires that tobacco sellers have a license to sell. In Virginia, a tobacco-related taxation law will also go into effect: Heated tobacco products will be taxed at $2.25 per stick starting Jan. 1, and the new law will require remote distributors, or non-Virginia distributors shipping tobacco products to wholesale or retail customers in Virginia, to be taxed if they meet a certain volume threshold.

A handful of states will institute new legislation related to health care and insurance on Jan. 1. In California, as the pandemic continues, employers will be required to notify employees upon receipt of notification of potential exposure to the novel coronavirus within one business day. In South Carolina, health care facilities and first responders will be required to disclose certain information to the Department of Health and Environmental Control for Inclusion when a person receives an opioid antidote, to combat the opioid epidemic in the state.

[READ: States With Mask Mandates]

Health care providers in Idaho will be required to provide a bill to the patient’s health insurance provider within 45 days of providing a service. In Pennsylvania, a new law established the Pennsylvania Health Insurance Exchange Fund, moving to a state-based health insurance exchange marketplace and reinsurance program and aiming to lower premiums for Pennsylvanians.

For two states, California and West Virginia, certain data provisions will become a legal obligation for some organizations. In California, effective Jan. 1, organizations with more than 100 employees will be required to provide data on pay rates with special regard to race, ethnicity and gender to California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing by March 31, 2021. In West Virginia, the State Board of Education will be responsible for gathering and distributing career-landscape and college information to high school students under the Students’ Right to Know Act.

Three states will see some paid-leave legislation beginning Jan. 1: Connecticut, Colorado and New York. In Connecticut, a statewide family and medical leave program will go into effect, with wage deductions funding the program. Employees who have earned at least $2,325 during their highest-earning quarter will qualify. In Colorado, organizations with 16 or more employees are required to provide them with one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. And in New York, a new law that took effect Sept. 30, 2020, allowed employees to begin accruing paid sick leave, which is eligible for use starting Jan. 1.

California and Hawaii will be expanding the legal measures that either protect victims of domestic violence and crime or penalize offenders. California will build on existing legislation that prohibits employers from taking punitive action against employees who take time off due to domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. Beginning Jan. 1, employers will also be barred from retaliating against employees who take time off work after falling victim to a “crime,” as defined by California code. Hawaii will introduce a domestic violence remediation pilot program that allows offenders to accept a plea deal subjecting them to intervention programs and counseling instead of going through the court system. Hawaiians who commit one incident of domestic violence and fail to cooperate with the orders of an intervening officer will be subject to 48 hours in jail, while those with more than one such offense within one year of their first will face 30 days in prison.

Iowa and Louisiana will put legislation into place Jan. 1 concerning the classification of independent contractors. In Iowa, owners and operators of large vehicles will be classified as an independent contractor while performing services with that vehicle if they are responsible for the vehicle’s maintenance, supply personnel to operate the vehicle, and determine the details and scope of the services they provide with that vehicle. In Louisiana, the new legislation distinguishes between employees — whose manner of work and tools and implements are provided by an employer — and independent contractors, who control the character and circumstances of their work, as well as provide their own tools or materials.

California passed a contentious ballot initiative, Proposition 22, in November 2020. After voters approved the measure with 58% support, rideshare and food delivery services including Uber, Lyft and DoorDash will be able to classify their workers as independent contractors as of Jan. 1. While drivers who work for these services will retain a measure of independence as to how they perform their work, the corporations employing them will no longer have to offer benefits including overtime, paid sick leave or unemployment insurance. The service providers spent over $200 million lobbying for Proposition 22, according to California campaign finance disclosures.

Other state laws that take effect Jan. 1 affect a wide variety of people and products, including:

— Employees: In Colorado in the new year, employers are prohibited from paying workers lesser wages than those of similarly skilled and experienced employees performing similar tasks on the basis of sex.

— Those who take insulin: Utah will cap monthly copayments for insulin at $30 in 2021. The new law also establishes an emergency refill immediately, rather than requiring authorization from a physician.

— Children with concussions or brain injuries: Oregon’s Department of Education will create a form for public education programs to use describing accommodations for students who have been diagnosed with a concussion or other brain injury starting Jan. 1.

— Vehicle owners and sellers: California and Washington both passed legislation in 2010 that would limit the amount of copper materials by weight that can be used in vehicle brake pads. As of Jan. 1, both states will prohibit the sale of brake pads with more than 5% copper by weight. California will impose fines up to $10,000 per violation, and Washington will allow some exceptions to clear inventory for materials manufactured prior to 2021.

— Those with solar power: In Delaware, residents who choose to install a solar-powered electrical system in their home will have their electrical rebates increase from $0.60 per watt in 2020 to $0.70 per watt beginning Jan. 1, according to new rates set by the state’s Green Energy Fund. The maximum rebate amount residents can receive will also increase to $6,000 in 2021.

— Drivers: Since July in Virginia, handheld personal communication devices have been banned from use while driving, but starting Jan. 1, 2021, enforcement will begin. A first-time offense will be punishable by a $125 fine.

More from U.S. News

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