Newsom Signs New Covid Worker Protection Law

Gov. Gavin Newsom wears a protective mask on his face while speaking to reporters at Miss Ollie’s restaurant in Oakland, Calif. on June 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, Pool)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California businesses must inform employees if they were potentially exposed to Covid-19 at the workplace under legislation signed Thursday by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Supporters hope a simple notification from businesses will considerably stem the type of mass outbreaks that have plagued the state in recent months and infected hordes of farmworkers and other frontline employees.

The bill’s author said the goal is to protect minority workers and communities that have borne the brunt of the state’s coronavirus infections and deaths and prevent employers from hiding outbreaks.

“In the age of Covid-19 our essential workers risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones in our fields, hospitals, grocery stores, meatpacking plants, restaurant kitchens and countless other businesses in our state,” Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, said.

Reyes says the notification system is necessary for the state to “get serious” about controlling the pandemic that has infected over 766,000 Californians, most of any state.

Under Assembly Bill 685, businesses that become aware of an infection within 24 hours must provide written notice to all employees and subcontractors who may have recently come into contact with the sick employee. They must also give the exposed employees information about Covid-19 benefits they may be entitled to if they get the virus, such as workers’ compensation or state-mandated leave.

The law, which applies to public and private entities, also requires employers to notify their public health department if at least three workers test positive within 14 days. 

A variety of workplace outbreaks have sprouted across the Golden State, causing labor unions and worker advocates to push for the added transparency.

In perhaps the state’s worst work-related outburst, nearly 400 workers at a Foster Farms poultry facility contracted the virus, and eight died. There have also been severe outbreaks at farmworker housing facilities across the state.

Business organizations like the California Chamber of Commerce opposed the bill, claiming it could expose even responsible employers to fines and lead to unnecessary “public shaming.” 

Reyes introduced AB 685 late in the previous session, and the Legislature approved it on the final day with the support of the Democrats’ supermajority.

Newsom additionally inked a pair of bills making it easier for frontline workers to qualify for workers’ compensation and legislation extending family leave to small business workers.

Effectively immediately, Senate Bill 1159 creates a “rebuttable frontline worker presumption” for occupations like health care workers, law enforcement officers and firefighters that assumes infected employees were infected during the line of duty and are therefore eligible for workers’ compensation. The bill, which sunsets in 2023, extends similar protections for nonessential workers who contract Covid-19 and work at a job site the state deems is experiencing an outbreak.

“We applaud Gov. Newsom’s leadership in protecting workers from day one of this crisis,” California Labor Federation Treasurer Art Pulaski said in a statement. ”While more work must be done in 2021 to strengthen protections to ensure essential workers putting their lives at risk return home safely to their families after each shift, today the governor gave a much-needed boost to all workers across the state.”

A coalition of agricultural groups and the National Federation of Independent Business opposed the workers’ compensation bill, with the opponents calling it “administratively burdensome” and “unworkable for employers.”

In another proposal opposed by business groups, the final piece of Thursday’s package is Senate Bill 1383 by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara. The bill mandates that businesses with five or more employees allow workers up to 12 weeks of paid or unpaid leave to care for newborns or sick family members without retribution. 

“With this bill, millions of hard-working Californians will finally be able to use the paid family leave benefits they pay for without fear of losing their jobs,” Jackson said in a statement.

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