California Enacts New Employment Laws In Response To Coronavirus

AJ Gilead

California Enacts New Employment Laws In Response To Coronavirus

Employment Law
| 5 min

Due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed numerous new employment acts into law, most of which came into effect in the last few weeks. These new bills and amendments expand on the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and deal with Covid-19 related issues. The bills cover aspects such as sick leave payments resulting from the coronavirus, new reporting procedures for those exposed to the virus, and an extended filing period for DLSE complaints.

New COVID-19 reporting requirements

Assembly Bill (AB) 685 came into effect on the 1st January 2021. The bill addresses strict COVID-19 reporting procedures for all companies with employees or subtractors.  

If there is potential COVID-19 exposure, the law requires all companies to notify any employees who may be at risk, within one business day. This notification needs to be in writing to all workers and subcontractors who were at the worksite during the infectious period, as well as those who represent them – such as unions or attorneys. 

The notice will explain items such as COVID-19-related benefits, compensation, and paid sick leave. It will also communicate the company’s policies relating to issues including anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, and anti-retaliation, as well as its disinfection protocols and safety plans. 

The bill also enhances enforcement by the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA). The division can now issue a citation for serious violations more quickly and requires companies to notify local public health agencies if there is an outbreak. 

The Assembly Bill defines an “outbreak” as three confirmed cases within a two-week period. If one occurs, employers must notify relevant authorities within 48 hours and provide the names, numbers and occupation of those affected, and any additional laboratory-confirmed cases that occur. 

Additionally, employers must draft and implement a COVID-19 Pandemic Plan, clearly identifying how they will deal with exposures and outbreaks. They must also include planned procedures, training, inspections and effectiveness as per CDC guidelines.

Extension of the filing period for DLSE complaints 

Governor Newsom approved AB 1947 toward the end of 2020, and it has now become law. It amends the Labor Code in two significant ways.

The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) is the agency charged with enforcing California’s labor laws. As the law previously stood, any person who deemed themselves discharged or discriminated against in violation of labor laws had six months to file a claim with the Labor Commissioner. These claims start an administrative investigation and can result in penalties for the company and possible reinstatement of the employee. AB 1947 amends the existing law by extending the deadline for filing a claim from six months to one year. 

The other amendment relates to Labor Code 1102.5, which prohibit company policies that prevent employees from disclosing information to government or law enforcement agencies. Under the law, workers who prevailed in “whistleblower” lawsuit against their employers, could receive damages but could not recover attorney fees.  AB 1947 now authorizes courts to award ‘reasonable attorneys’ fees’ to successful plaintiffs.

Unlike other bills, AB 1947 cannot be specifically considered “COVID-19” legislation. However, it is clear that the decisions and timings of the Act are strongly influenced by the pandemic. They both enhance existing laws and increase employee protection in the uncertain climate brought about by the coronavirus.

Large companies must pay sick leave for those with COVID-19

The application of AB 1867 has been carried over into 2021 in many major districts of California, even though it was signed in the latter half of 2020 and has officially expired in several areas. 

The bill applied to private Californian companies with over 500 employees who were not already covered by the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). It required these larger employers to provide paid sick leave for COVID-19 related absences. The bill also extended to entities that employ healthcare providers or emergency responders. Governor Newsom’s office said AB 1867 “closes the gaps in paid sick days” that had existed in the FFCRA.

The Act defines “employees” as all those currently working for a company or on leave. It also includes workers from temporary placement agencies and day laborers.

The bill and its provisions came into effect on the 19th September 2020. However, as the California legislature decided not to continue the Act into 2021, it expired on 31st December 2020. Even so, employers are still permitted to claim federal tax credits if they voluntarily provide COVID-19 related leave through to 31st March 2021. 

Some local governments, such as the City and Country of San Francisco, Sacramento County, and San Mateo County, have extended sick leave rules and require those companies covered by the bill to continue COVID-19 absence payments into 2021. So, the bill is still relevant and in effect for many districts and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

Image: Alexandra Littlewolf

Jan 26, 2021
AJ Gilead