California workplace regulators are set to extend mandatory wages for coronavirus-affected workers through the end of 2022, more than two months after state lawmakers reinstated similar benefits until september.
The decision expected on Thursday again pits management against unions as the seven-member Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board renews revised workplace safety rules that would otherwise expire in early May.
“The proposal is a necessary acknowledgment that the pandemic is underway, the future is unclear and workplaces must remain protected and prepared,” said Stephen Knight, executive director of Worksafe Inc., a group of workers’ defense based in Oakland. “It is essential to include sick pay and job protections for workers infected on the job and sent home.”
But Rob Moutrie, a policy advocate with the California Chamber of Commerce, said business groups “remain concerned about the cost and confusion of maintaining an uncapped exclusion indemnity under the regulations, particularly in light of the Legislature’s recent passage of COVID-19 sick leave legislation.”
Small businesses especially struggled with the requirement, Moutrie said. The Cal/OSHA rule applies to nearly every workplace in the state, covering office, factory, and retail workers, while the state’s sick leave law does not apply. applies only to businesses with 26 or more employees.
The debate comes as the highly transmissible variant of Omicron BA.2 becomes dominant in California and the United States, threatening a new wave of infections.
The state’s case rate has increased by a third and test positivity has doubled since late March. Hospitalizations and intensive care patients remain at or near their lows for the pandemic. But state models predict hospitalizations will rise from less than 1,000 now to 1,500 in another month, while intensive care unit admissions are expected to continue to decline before beginning a slow increase in late May.
The pending settlement requires employers to continue paying workers’ wages and maintain their seniority and other benefits for as long as they are unable to work due to coronavirus exposure or work-related infection, unless they are receiving disability benefits or the employer can prove the close contact was non-work related.
“It is important that employees who are COVID-19 cases do not come to work,” Cal/OSHA said. “It is important to maintain employee income and benefits as usual, when they are excluded from the workplace, to ensure that employees will notify their employers if they test positive for COVID-19 or s they have close contact.
The state’s sick leave law differs in that it offers employees up to a week of paid leave if they catch the coronavirus or care for a sick family member. They are only entitled to a second week off if they or their family members test positive.
There is a troubling provision in the revised Cal/OSHA paid vacation rules that is not in current regulations, said Mitch Steiger, a legislative attorney with the California Labor Federation.
Currently, an employee who had close contact with an infected colleague is also sent home, with pay. But under the revised rules they could not stay at home until they tested positive.
“The employer could force that person to stay at work and interact with co-workers, members of the public, and immunocompromised people and whoever until that person tests positive,” Steiger said.
“The further back we go, the more space we give the virus to spread,” he said.
Nearly two dozen agribusiness organizations said in a letter to the standards committee that the new pending rule creates another problem: “It actually rewards people for not getting tested,” said Michael Miiller, California Assn. . from the government relations director of Winegrape Growers, who wrote the letter.
Employers would have two choices when dealing with an outbreak of three or more coronavirus cases and an employee comes into close contact, they said: The employee must either test negative or be given a week paid leave if he refuses to be tested. They also noted that employees infected in the last 90 days could show false positive test results.
Despite their concerns, employee advocates want the board to approve the revised rules, while business groups are again urging the board to end specific regulations they say cannot keep up with a rapidly evolving virus and public health rules.
California recently relaxed many masking and quarantine rules. Cal/OSHA says most of the revised regulations are consistent with California Department of Public Health recommendations and orders that employers are already following.
Knight, the executive director of Worksafe, is concerned that Cal/OSHA is now relying too heavily on recommendations intended for the general public instead of those designed specifically for workplaces.
There is a difference, he said, “between families who choose to go out to dinner and a family member who has no choice but to clock in and do the dishes side by side.”