A bill to make it mandatory for employers to report cases of COVID-19 in their workplaces within 24 hours is moving through the state legislature with the backing of labor unions and the Latino caucus.
Assembly Bill 685, introduced by Assembly Member Eloise Gomez Reyes of San Bernardino, would require employers who learn their employees may have been exposed to COVID-19 to notify their employees, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA), and the State Department of Public Health (DPH).
Backers of the bill argue that, currently, there is a gray area that gives employers a loophole from reporting infections of COVID-19 because Cal-OSHA only requires employers to report serious injuries or deaths. Under the proposed bill, if an employer knew their employees could have been exposed to COVID-19 and failed to report it, the employer could face misdemeanor charges and/or a $10,000 fine.
“All this is is reporting. We just gotta let people know what’s happening," said California Labor Federation's legislative advocate Mitch Steiger. "It’s nothing more than that, it’s not a large ask.”
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Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, who is Chair of the Latino Caucus, said the bill is necessary to protect employees of color who are disproportionately represented as essential workers and, therefore, more likely to be affected by an outbreak of COVID-19 in the workplace.
"This is something that should have been mandatory early on in the pandemic but we're going to deal with it now," she said.
Business groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, are lining up against the bill, arguing it will be impossible to comply with it, the Associated Press reports. Their main concern is unclear definitions of what it means to be exposed to the virus.
The bill's language is still being worked out, but sponsors say it will include specific definitions for what an employer is required to report. According to the latest version of the bill, exposed to COVID-19 means: a positive COVID-19 test or diagnosis from a licensed health provider, a COVID-19 related order to quarantine or a fatality that could have been caused by COVID-19.
The bill would also define "reasonable knowledge," but specifics are being determined.
"We don't want to put a duty on [employers] that they cant fulfill but clearly if an employee directly tells an employer, that is knowledge," Reyes said.
Enforcement would fall onto Cal-OSHA, but Reyes believes that it would actually ease the occupational safety department's tracking efforts by creating an easy data gathering tool that would allow them to pinpoint hotspots and outbreaks.
Cal-OSHA would also be responsible for displaying the data publicly on their website.
For employees, the benefit of the bill is the ability to know their risk. Disneyland Cast member Laurinda Fiddler, a member of UFCW Local 324, said her biggest priority is protecting her family -- a daughter and an 82-year-old mother.
"I want to protect the people around me and if AB 685 goes into effect, I have one more tool to protect the people around me," Fiddler said. "That's what it comes down to. I don't want to expose others to the virus."
She has not yet returned to work but said the bill would give her some peace of mind by allowing Cal-OSHA to gather the information necessary to protect employees like her.
“Anything that can help me protect others is the right thing to do,” she said.
The legislation has been approved by the state Assembly but will need to pass the Senate and be reapproved by the Assembly before reaching Gov. Gavin Newsom's desk. Reyes believes the bill could become law by early September.