With Sacramento County leaving businesses to figure out policies to deal with the latest COVID-19 surge on their own, COVID-19 protection measures and policies can vary by employer, though there are still some measures in place for workers to protect themselves in the workplace.
California has let some worker protection laws that the state implemented at the start of the pandemic lapse. That’s complicated workers’ ability to take sick leave if they or another member of their household tests positive for COVID-19.
Daniela Urban, executive director of the Center for Workers’ Rights, pointed specifically to the elimination of California’s COVID-19 supplemental paid sick leave last September.
“Parents, for example, have a difficult situation when their child may have tested positive but isn’t seriously ill with COVID,” she said. “It makes it more difficult for them to receive job-protected leave to care for that family member while that family member is quarantining because of an exposure at their school.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins announced Tuesday they had agreed to extend COVID-19 supplemental sick leave for workers through Sept. 30. The extension will come through state budget bills that also include money to increase testing, support hospitals and more relief grants for small businesses.
“By extending sick leave to frontline workers with COVID and providing support for California businesses, we can help protect the health of our workforce, while also ensuring that businesses and our economy are able to thrive,” the press release reads.
Newsom recommended the reinstatement of the supplemental sick leave, which expired Sep. 30, 2021, in his budget proposal earlier this month.
Urban said the Center for Workers’ Rights has been in touch with the City Council about reenacting the Sacramento Worker Protection, Health and Safety Act, which expired at the end of June 2021.
Still, as a worker, you have the right to advocate for your safety at your workplace. All workers, regardless of immigration status, are protected by California’s labor laws.
Here’s some information that might help.
Employer COVID-19 protocols
Under the emergency temporary standard from Cal/OSHA, every employer with on-site workers must have a COVID-19 protocol in place.
Cal/OSHA, an agency under the state’s department of industrial relations, sets guidelines for employers that ensure a work environment protecting worker safety and health. The emergency temporary standard, which initially took effect at the end of November 2020 and has been revised twice since, is a set of additional regulations employers must follow to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.
Those standards were updated Jan. 14 due to the omicron variant of COVID-19, according to Dan Leiner, area manager with Cal/OSHA consultation services.
Changes to the standard include:
- In transportation and housing provided by an employer, fully vaccinated employees are no longer exempt from face coverings.
- Employers must make free COVID-19 testing available during paid time to all employees, regardless of vaccination status, after a close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
- During an outbreak — defined as more than three cases of COVID-19 in 14 days — employers must make free COVID-19 testing available during paid time to all employees, regardless of vaccination status, weekly.
Another major change addresses notification in the workplace if there’s a COVID-19 case, he said.
Now, Leiner said, employers must “make sure that other workers, employee representatives and any other workers — such as a subcontractor or contractor who might be performing work in a particular workplace — who might have had an exposure to COVID-19 gets the proper notification.”
Since November 2020, employers have been required to have a written COVID-19 prevention program in English.
“The program itself does not need to be translated, but the information in the COVID-19 prevention program does need to be communicated to workers in a language and at the literacy level that the workers will understand,” he said.
Urban said workers should ask for a copy of that program, or at least the information in it.
“That’s really what determines the specifics of that workplace’s COVID prevention,” she said. “For example, how do [workers] inform their employer about a COVID-positive test? What prevention mechanisms are in place at that location to prevent the spread of COVID?”
Currently, there are only English fact sheets on the Cal/OSHA website to explain the updated expectations for workers and employers.
With the updated emergency temporary standard guidelines, Leiner said, acceptable face coverings must “cover the employee’s nose, mouth and chin and not have any gaps.”
“That’s again to provide better protection to the person’s coworkers as the mask is a source control,” he said.
Additionally, Cal/OSHA is using the California Department Public Health guidelines for quarantine and isolation.
The guidelines address if someone must quarantine from work after being exposed to someone with COVID-19, and how long that must last. After exposure, all workers, regardless of vaccination status, who test positive, and unvaccinated workers must be isolated for at least five days. Exposed but vaccinated workers do not have to be excluded from work if asymptomatic.
CalMatters has a breakdown of FAQs of the Cal/OSHA requirements around testing and what employers can require here.
General worker protections
Urban, from the Center for Workers’ Rights, pointed to California paid family leave, California paid sick leave and state disability insurance as three currently active programs workers can utilize when COVID-19 affects them or their families.
“If someone is seriously ill with COVID,” she said, “they might qualify for state disability insurance, which would provide pay during the time that they are suffering from COVID.”
Disability insurance provides at least 60-70% of a worker’s wages, depending on income, and ranges from $50-$1,300 a week for up to a year. You can file a claim for disability insurance via mail or via California’s online program, available in both English and Spanish.
Citizenship and immigration status do not affect eligibility for disability insurance or paid family leave. To file a claim for paid family leave, you can start here.
For more questions about worker protections and how to navigate available benefits, Urban also encouraged workers in the Sacramento region to utilize the Center for Workers’ Rights Coronavirus Job Protection Helpline at 916-905-1625.
Leiner also pointed to the consultation services branch of Cal/OSHA for questions about the emergency temporary standard.
“If someone has a question on workplace safety and health, they’re able to call one of our consultation offices and speak with one of our consultants directly and get their questions answered,” he said.
The seven consultation office numbers are listed here and the statewide number is 1-800-963-9424.
What parents needing time off to care for their child can do
If a child is seriously ill, a parent may be able to take California Family Rights Act leave or receive pay under California’s paid family leave, Urban said.
California mandates minimum three paid sick days for employees who have worked for the same employer for at least 30 days. Urban suggested that parents whose child is less ill can use one or more of those sick days.
“But this is where the gap in coverage really is, because we would like to be able to see parents easily be able to take time off work when their child needs to stay home due to COVID,” she said.
What to do if employers aren’t following protocol
In Sacramento County, workers can report mask mandate violations by calling 311, said county public information officer Samantha Mott.
Workers in Yolo County can report an employer’s failure to enforce a mask mandate via the COVID-19 question or concern form on the county’s COVID-19 site, according to John Fout, a county spokesperson.
Both El Dorado and Placer County currently have no place for workers to report mask mandate violations.
“Mask mandates in workplace settings are enforceable by Cal/OSHA and we’d encourage workers and employers to familiarize themselves with its guidance,” said Dr. Rob Oldham, Placer County’s Health and Human Services Director via email.
More broadly, per California law, workers are protected from retaliation for reporting unsafe working conditions, asking about their workplace rights and asking about health and safety protocols, among other scenarios.
“If you have an employer that’s disregarding the regulation and willfully is just ignoring it and not listening to workers and violating Cal/OSHA’s regulations, the next option then would be for that worker to file a complaint with their local enforcement district office,” Leiner, from Cal/OSHA, said.
Urban added that workers can file wage complaints via the California Labor Commissioner’s office if they are specifically dealing with wage withholding as a form of retaliation.
Cal/OSHA, she said, may not have sufficient staff to investigate every worker complaint or determine whether the law has been violated in every situation.
“It does allow a worker to begin the process, and especially for large employers or employers where there has been a large outbreak of COVID, Cal/OSHA can impose penalties on that employer for failing to comply,” Urban said.
The statewide Cal/OSHA number to file a complaint about retaliation is 833-579-0927, or you can file online and request an interpreter for language assistance if needed.
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