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California workplace safety rules are likely to change due to coronavirus fears

The LA Times logo The LA Times 7/24/2020 Melody Gutierrez
a person sitting on a newspaper: Activists rally in January at New York's City Hall for paid sick leave. Worker rights advocates have pushed for such measures in several U.S. cities. (Mary Altaffer / Associated Press) © (Mary Altaffer / Associated Press) Activists rally in January at New York's City Hall for paid sick leave. Worker rights advocates have pushed for such measures in several U.S. cities. (Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

With many of California's workplaces facing significant changes fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, state lawmakers are considering whether labor laws need to evolve too.

Legislators have proposed expanding workers' compensation eligibility so that more employees will be covered if they are diagnosed with COVID-19, increasing the number of sick days for food service workers and requiring employers to pay a portion of utility and internet bills for teleworkers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday that he plans to work "hand in glove" with the Legislature to expand workplace protections, including guaranteeing COVID-19-related sick leave, easing workers' compensation claim requirements, enforcing labor laws and ensuring employers are reporting outbreaks.

"The reality is that we will come back to a different society, a different economy and a different definition of workplaces when this is over," said Victor Narro, project director and professor of labor studies at the UCLA Labor Center.

Determining whether fixes will be needed temporarily or long-term will be a key question for the Legislature when it reconvenes on Monday, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said.

Gonzalez and state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) both have bills to ease restrictions on workers' compensation so more employees have access to the benefit. Talks are underway to combine Gonzalez's bill with Hill's legislation, Senate Bill 1159, the lawmakers said.

SB 1159 would add coronavirus-related illness or death to the list of on-the-job injuries covered under the state's workers' compensation program while removing a requirement that workers prove they contracted the virus on the job. Instead, employers would have to prove that COVID-19 wasn't contracted in the workplace.

Newsom included a similar measure for essential workers in a May 6 executive order — a big win for labor unions. However, that executive order only eased the burden of proof for workers with COVID-19 before July 5.

Hill said many of the specifics in his bill are still being worked out in discussions with labor and business groups, including which industries would be covered and whether the provisions would be retroactive.

"In the end, not everyone will be happy with it," Hill said. "But the working men and women of California expect us to do something. ... We want to make sure employers are doing the right thing to protect workers."

As currently written, Gonzalez's bill, AB 196, would go a step further than Hill's legislation by creating a presumption that essential workers who contract COVID-19 were infected while on the job, with no ability for the employer to contest that finding.

"We need to eliminate these prolonged battles for the worker,” Gonzalez said. "Essential workers were still working so that we can all shelter in place. That created the need for extra protections for them, including with workers' compensation and increased sick days.”

The California Chamber of Commerce opposes Gonzalez's bill, calling it a "drastic" measure that would "create an astronomical financial burden on California employers and the workers’ compensation system, at a time when they are already struggling for their livelihoods and can least afford it."

The group placed Gonzalez's bill on its annual “job killer” list, which highlights laws that corporate interests say will hurt employment and the economy.

Among the other workplace bills the Legislature will consider in the coming weeks is AB 3216 by Assemblyman Ash Kalra (D-San Jose), which would make it an unlawful employment practice to refuse a request for up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave from a worker who needs to care for a child whose school or daycare has closed due to a state, local or federal public health emergency.

Assembly Bill 1492 by Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas) would ease workplace restrictions dictating when employees must take meal and rest breaks during the day — a proposal intended to provide more flexibility in working from home — while requiring employers to pay for an additional hour of work if the employer requires workers to skip those breaks. The bill also would require an employer to pay for equipment needed to work from home and a portion of the worker's home internet and utility bills.

Senate Bill 729 by state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) would require employers to provide an additional 80 hours of paid COVID-19 sick leave to full-time food sector workers during a declared local or state emergency.

Many of the workplace bills will undergo changes during the coming weeks and are likely to encounter opposition from business interests.

"Now is not the time to add additional costs and uncertainty for California employers who are in a fight for economic survival," said Denise Davis, vice president of the California Chamber of Commerce.

Lawmakers will face two obstacles when they return to the Capitol on Monday to consider the hundreds of bills yet to be acted on: a massive budget deficit and a shortened legislative calendar. The Legislature has closed twice this year due to COVID-19 concerns, with the first shutdown in March.

This month, the Senate and Assembly opted to delay returning from summer recess by two weeks after several Capitol staffers and lawmakers tested positive for the virus. On Thursday, both houses of the Legislature announced that some lawmakers at high risk for contracting the disease will be able to cast votes from home.

Lawmakers have until Aug. 31 to send bills to Gov. Newsom before adjourning for the year.

“This pandemic will have long-term impacts on the workplace,” Gonzalez said. “We need to ensure we are prepared for those, now and in the future.”

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