Overseeing workplace COVID-19 outbreaks

A sign encouraging vineyard workers to practice social distancing is posted among the grapevines on May 6, 2020 in Oakville. Napa County does not collect data on workplace coronavirus outbreaks. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters
A sign encouraging vineyard workers to practice social distancing is posted among the grapevines on May 6, 2020 in Oakville. Napa County does not collect data on workplace coronavirus outbreaks. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

By Jackie Botts

WHAT THE BILL WOULD DO

AB 685 would require employers to notify their employees of potential COVID-19 exposures in the workplace. It also requires they alert their local health department of outbreaks, defined as three or more positive cases within 14 days. Finally, it strengthens the power of Cal/OSHA, the state agency charged with regulating workplace safety, to enforce these rules and even to shut down any worksite deemed to be an “imminent hazard” to employees because of COVID risk.  

WHO SUPPORTS IT? 

The California Labor Federation, which represents over 1,200 unions in manufacturing, retail, construction and hospitality, among other industries. Other groups include workers’ rights advocates like California Rural Legal Assistance, the Latino Coalition for A Healthy California, and professional associations like California Professional Firefighters.

WHO’S OPPOSED?

The California Chamber of Commerce and a long list of industry lobbies representing agricultural, hospitality, and construction employers, among others. These include California Building Industry Association, the California Association of Winegrape Growers, California Hotel & Lodging Association, Western Growers Association, to name a few.

WHY IT MATTERS

Currently, the state simply advises employers to notify workers and their local health agency of suspected outbreaks. But massive outbreaks in workplaces — ranging from agricultural guest workers living in tightly-packed hotel rooms to chicken processing facilities to pistachio plants —  have revealed that employers frequently don’t follow those guidelines. Counties vary widely in whether and how they track employer outbreaks.

If signed into law, this would create an enforceable statewide standard for how employers handle outbreaks beginning Jan. 1, 2021. Even so, a number of its provisions were struck out in the last week to get the necessary votes: among them, a requirement that the state publicize all ongoing workplace outbreaks, a $10,000 penalty, and a presumption that employers were retaliating if they fired an employee who fell ill or asked for a COVID test, for example.

GOVERNOR’S CALL

The governor signed the bill on Sept. 17, saying it’s important to prioritize “our workforce, our workers, our front line essential workforce that we pay a lot of lip service to, but often we don’t back up.”