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California Governor Newsom Signs Law Requiring Employers to Warn Workers of COVID-19 Exposure

Coronavirus4

On September 17, 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 685 and Senate Bill 1159. These bills provide additional legal protections for workers in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the bills expand access to workers’ compensation for front-line workers and require employers to notify their workers of any potential COVID-19 cases at their workplaces.

New Notification Requirements

California law already required employers to report most workplace injuries to the state Department of Industrial Relations. Under AB 685, this requirement now covers situations where an employer has received “a notice of potential exposure to COVID-19.” Upon receiving such notice, the employer must in turn notify any other employees who were working at the same job site. This notice must be made within 1 business day and includes any “employers of subcontracted employees” at the site in question.

Additionally, if the employer is notified that the number of COVID-19 cases on-site meets the definition of an “outbreak,” it must report as such to local public health agency officials. The legislation also expands Cal/OSHA’s authority to shutdown any worksite that is deemed a COVID-19 hazard.

Additional Benefits for Affected Workers

SB 1159 helps resolve a longstanding question over whether employees can apply for and receive workers’ compensation benefits if they develop COVID-19 at work. Gov. Newsom previously issued an executive order creating a “rebuttable presumption” that any COVID-related illness or death suffered by certain front-line workers was an “occupational injury” covered by workers’ compensation. SB 1159 codifies the governor’s order into law.

The legislation expressly covers peace (police) officers, and firefighters, as well as other broadly defined categories of healthcare and front-line workers. If these workers contract COVID-19 due to workplace exposure, they are presumptively entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Eligible workers will also maintain their eligibility for workers’ compensation up to 14 days after their “last day of employment” with a covered employer.

Separately, SB 1159 extends a “presumption of compensability” to anyone working for a private employer who contracts COVID-19 in a work-related “outbreak.” For employers with between 5 and 100 employees, an outbreak exists when at least 5 employees at a specific location contract COVID-19 within a 14-day period. For employers with more than 100 workers, at least 5 percent of the employees at a given location must contract COVID-19 to qualify as an outbreak.

As this presumption is rebuttable, the employer may still be able to avoid paying workers’ compensation benefits if it can demonstrate that it had “measures in place to prevent transmission of COVID-19” and that an employee’s exposure to the virus was “non-occupational.”

Get Up-to-Date Information on the Legal Response to COVID-19

AB 685 and SB 1159 are just the latest steps in the ongoing legislative response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is likely to be additional legislation in the future affecting the rights of workers throughout the state. If you need up-to-date legal advice on how these measures may affect you, please contact a qualified California employment law attorney.

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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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