The California State Legislature wrapped up its latest session last Monday, scrambling to take action on a number of bills addressing employee safety amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, instilling more protections for some while leaving others in the lurch.
One bill that would provide more protection for the vast majority of essential workers is Assembly Bill 685 authored by Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes (D-San Bernardino).
The bill would create an enforceable statewide standard requiring employers to notify employees of possible exposure within one day of receiving a positive confirmed case of COVID-19 in the workplace and require employers to provide information to employees regarding any COVID-19 related benefits, including workers’ compensation. As it currently stands, employers are simply “advised” to notify employees of possible exposure to the virus in the workplace.
The bill would also give Cal/OSHA more power to enforce the standard and shut down any worksite deemed too hazardous.
These new protections are especially important for California’s farmworkers experiencing outbreaks due to tight living conditions and packed transportation buses to and from worksites. Farmworkers have largely been left out of conversations surrounding protections for essential workers and often aren’t given the information on how to obtain legally-required benefits available to them such as workers’ compensation.
Speaking of workers’ compensation, on the rebuttable presumption front, only Senate Bill 1159 authored by Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) was taken up for final vote in the waning hours of the legislative session. The bill would codify Governor Newsom’s rebuttable presumption enacted through executive order earlier this year while creating two new presumptions for different sets of essential workers – one presumption for firefighters, police officers and healthcare workers, and one for non-emergency workers that would only be triggered if certain criteria for an outbreak were met.
CAAA had worked with labor groups to try to remove the outbreak thresholds from the bill language arguing that it would be too prohibitive and cumbersome to have any real benefit for employees who become infected on the job, but the language was ultimately left intact.
Two other bills, Assembly Bill 196 by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) and Assembly Bill 664 by Assemblymember Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove) would have worked in tandem to provide presumptions for all of California’s essential workers, but unfortunately were left on the cutting room floor as legislators failed to take up a vote on either measure.
As with any legislative session, there are always winners and losers. Unfortunately for many essential workers putting their lives at risk on the frontlines and hoping to be covered by a workable presumption, they found themselves on the losing end this time.