California’s SB 1159 and AB 685 provide new COVID-19 guidelines

Many months after it first arrived in our state, COVID-19 outbreaks continue throughout California. To slow the rate of transmission and provide both businesses and workers with clear rules and guidelines, state lawmakers have passed two new bills regulating COVID-19 exposure, notification, and workers’ compensation coverage in the workplace.

Earlier this year, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order relaxing some of the requirements of the California WARN Act. Now, the California legislature has passed two new bills that impact the state’s employers and employees: SB 1159 and AB 685. In this article, we will review these two new laws and what they mean for both workers and their employers.

SB 1159

The primary purpose of SB 1159 is to provide employees with access to workers’ compensation benefits if they are infected with COVID-19 and are unable to come to work. This new law reclassifies a COVID-19 illness as an occupational injury. The law aims to encourage sick workers to stay home, potentially slowing the rate of infection at places of business where there has been a coronavirus outbreak.

A response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, SB 1159 and AB 685 outline new rules for both employers and employees.

SB 1159 also provides a mechanism for businesses to safely reopen through a process of proving their preventative measures to local, county, and state health authorities. This limits employer liability for COVID-19 claims: unless there is a “demonstrated and verifiable” COVID-19 outbreak in the workplace, the employer is allowed to present any evidence that exonerates themselves as the source of the infection. In other words, they can file a rebuttal against an employee’s assertion that they contracted COVID-19 at work.

What this means for employees

To be eligible to file for workers’ compensation under SB 1159, you must meet these criteria:

  • You must work for a company or employer with five or more employees, or you are a first responder or healthcare worker.
  • At least 4% of the employees at your company must test positive for COVID-19, or your place of employment has been closed by local or county health officials.
  • You contracted COVID-19 and have a positive viral or antibody test.

However, the state of California notes that even employees who do not meet these criteria may still be eligible to file a workers’ compensation claim. In the event you file and your employer rejects your claim—or you meet the criteria and they reject your claim—you should speak with an experienced employment law attorney to review your options.

What this means for employers

Any employer with five or more employees must send a written notice to their workers’ compensation coverage provider when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. This is retroactive legislation: while this law did not go into effect until September 17, it applies to all positive COVID-19 tests dating back to July 6. If an employer had positive cases among employees between July 6 and September 16, they had until October 29 to report those cases to their workers’ compensation coverage provider.

When an employee files a workers’ compensation claim, employers must decide whether to accept or reject that claim within 45 days. If an employer does not reject the claim within that time frame, it is approved. An employer can later submit a rebuttal to the claim if new evidence emerges that the employee’s case of COVID-19 was not contracted at their place of work.

To learn more about SB 1159 and the provisions of this new legislation, please read this article from the California Department of Industrial Relations (California DIR).

AB 685

When it goes into effect on January 1, 2021, AB 685 will strengthen existing reporting rules and regulations related to COVID-19 exposure.

First, it gives Cal/OSHA significantly more enforcement power, allowing them to shut down businesses or specific locations where a COVID-19 outbreak is occurring. Cal/OSHA can also issue citations and levy fines against non-compliant businesses without the need for its standard 15-day notice. If an employer knows there is a confirmed case of COVID-19, or there is someone who is quarantining due to health order restrictions, they are required to notify all other employees and subcontractors in writing. If there are three or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the workplace, the employer must alert local health authorities and provide them with further information.

In addition, AB 685 requires employers to inform their employees about potential sources of exposure and be transparent with them about their benefits, protection, and what safety measures the employer is taking to prevent the spread of the virus. All employees at the same worksite or premises as the infected person must be sent a written notice of their potential exposure within one business day.

To learn more about AB 685 and the new rules that go into effect at the start of the new year, please read this article from the California DIR.