California Lawmaker Pushes to Protect Workers as Coronavirus Surges

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – With a statewide emergency freshly in place after the state’s first coronavirus death, a California lawmaker on Thursday introduced plans to shield quarantined workers from losing their jobs.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez wants to ensure California workers aren’t punished by employers for using sick leave or complying with requests to quarantine.

Laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. (CDC via AP)

“Workers shouldn’t be fired if they miss work because they’ve been quarantined or isolated due to a public health emergency like the coronavirus,” Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said. “We need to support workers so they can take every action necessary to prevent the spreading of this disease.”

The proposal comes one day after Gov. Gavin Newsom was prompted to declare a statewide emergency following the death of an elderly Northern California man who likely contracted the virus on a cruise ship. California has confirmed over 50 cases of the virus across 12 counties – including several who have contracted the virus through “community spread” – and joins Washington state, Florida and Hawaii in declaring emergencies.

Health officials believe the 71-year-old contracted the virus on a Grand Princess cruise ship that left San Francisco for Mexico in February. The man suffered from underlying conditions and died at a hospital one day after testing positive for the virus.

The cruise ship, which continued to Hawaii on a separate voyage, is currently being held offshore near San Francisco until testing can be conducted on the nearly 3,500 passengers and workers.

“The ship will not come on shore until we appropriately assess the passengers,” Newsom said, adding 11 passengers and 10 crew are potentially infected.

According to press reports, 35 people on the cruise had flu-like symptoms and that once test results are back officials will determine the best place to dock the ship.

The novel coronavirus dubbed COVID-19 has infected nearly 90,000 people globally and killed more than 3,000 since it first surfaced this past December. Some travel has been shut down worldwide, large-scale events have been canceled, schools have been closed and there have even been talks of pulling the plug on the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Several California counties have declared their own local emergencies, including Los Angeles and Placer where the patient died. San Francisco reported its first two coronavirus cases Thursday morning, with officials stating the patients had not traveled to places with confirmed cases – indicating community spread.

As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 99 total cases, excluding those repatriated, in 13 states and 10 deaths.

Federal emergency aid is likely on the way to the impacted states as President Donald Trump is expected to sign an $8.3 billion aid package no later than Friday. The U.S. Senate approved the package Thursday by a 96-1 vote.

The virus’ global march continues to wreak havoc 0n the financial world, as on Thursday the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped over 3% (1,013 points) in reaction to the International Air Transport Association’s prediction that airlines could lose more than $100 billion in revenue in 2020. Airline stocks predictably tanked and helped erase the markets’ Wednesday rally.

International shipping is also suffering and officials at the nation’s largest port are warning of a potential 15 to 17% drop in first quarter business. The Port of Los Angeles says the outbreak is causing perishables and agricultural goods to remain in port and could cost the industry billions of dollars.

Last month, the American Association of Port Authorities said first quarter cargo volumes at U.S. ports could be down by 20% compared to 2019.

The outbreak continued its toll in Washington state, where the number of cases jumped from 39 on Wednesday to 70 on Thursday. Officials say 10 residents have died from the virus with most of the deaths linked to a nursing facility in King County.

As part of the statewide emergency, the Evergreen State has ordered health insurers to waive copays and deductibles related to coronavirus testing and it is preparing to open additional quarantine facilities. Newsom made a similar order Thursday, requiring hospitals and insurance providers in California to waive the fees for “medically necessary” COVID-19 testing effectively immediately.

Vice President Mike Pence, in charge of the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, met with 3M Co. executives in Minnesota on Thursday and said the company is ramping up production of surgical masks.

Greeting a row of assembled policy makers with elbow bumps, Pence stepped onstage at the Pierce County Readiness Center at Lewis-McChord Air Force Base in Lakewood, Washington.

Earlier in the day, Pence had toured Washington State Emergency Operations Center with Washington Governor Jay Inslee. Seventy of the country’s 150 confirmed cases of coronavirus are in people in Washington state.

“Washington state is on the front lines of the coronavirus in America,” Pence said. “While virus continues to spread in the Seattle area and new cases are detected around the country every day, the good news is most of those are recovering and doing well. The truth is, the risk of contracting remains low.”

Asked whether he agreed with President Trump’s assertion that numbers released by the World Health Organization showing the virus had a mortality rate of 3.4% were false, Pence pointed to claims that some cases of low grade infections had not been detected.

“I think the president’s point was that the world is still discovering what the scope of the virus is,” Pence said. “I support the president’s judgment that we are going to continue to learn more about this and that we may well arrive at a lower number.”

The proposal by California Assemblywoman Gonzalez states businesses may not “discharge or in any manner discriminate or retaliate” against an employee for cooperating with an order from a public health official. Under Assembly Bill 3123, Californians would further be allowed to use sick time if their children’s schools are closed or if their place of business is shut down due to a public health emergency.

Amid reports of increased prices on items like hand sanitizers, toilet paper and medical supplies, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra reiterated Thursday the state’s anti-price gouging laws have been enacted with the governor’s emergency declaration. The law restricts businesses from raising the price of most consumer goods and services by more than 10% during a declared emergency.

“It’s not open season to gouge consumers and emergency responders when an emergency is declared in the state of California,” Becerra said. “If you violate our price-gouging laws, you better be prepared to pay the price for your law-breaking.”

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