California employers already have a lot to digest after Cal/OSHA issued sweeping new COVID-19 safety regulations in November.

Now they face additional requirements starting Jan. 1, 2021, thanks to a new law that expands notification requirements and gives Cal/OSHA the authority to issue stop-work orders on workplaces that have COVID-19 outbreaks. Here’s what you need to know to be prepared in case your workplace sees a flare-up.

California employers already have a lot to digest after Cal/OSHA issued sweeping new COVID-19 safety regulations in November. Now they face additional requirements starting Jan. 1, 2021, thanks to a new law.

AB 685 expands Cal/OSHA’s authority to issue stop-work orders to workplaces it deems a COVID-19 “imminent hazard.” It also requires employers to send notices to a number of parties (state agencies, local authorities, employees, contractors, and more) if the employer has coronavirus infections in any of its facilities.

The law, which takes effect on January 1, 2021, covers a lot of territory and employers need to understand their obligations if any of their employees test positive to avoid penalties, fines or possible legal action. Here are the main points to be aware of:

Employee notice requirements

The new law requires employers who learn of an employee’s COVID-19 infection to send out notifications to all employees and subcontracted workers who were on-site at the same time as the infected employee. An infected employee (or qualifying individual in the law) is defined as any person who has:

  • A laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19,
  • A positive COVID-19 diagnosis from a licensed health care provider,
  • A COVID-19-related order to isolate provided by a public health official, or
  • Died due to COVID-19, determined by a county public health department.

The notice must provide information regarding COVID-19-related benefits the employees may be eligible for under federal, state, and local laws, such as:

  • Workers’ compensation benefits,
  • COVID-19-related leaves,
  • Company sick leave,
  • State-mandated leave, and
  • Supplemental sick leave.

The notification must also include the employer’s COVID-19 disinfection and safety plan.

Public health agency notification

The new law also requires that employers notify their local public health agency within 48 hours of learning of an “outbreak” among its workers. An outbreak is defined as: At least three probable or confirmed COVID-19 cases within a 14-day period at a worksite.

Notifications must include:

  • Information about the worksite – name of company, business address, and North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) industry code.
  • Names and occupations of workers with COVID-19.
  • Additional information requested by the local health department as part of their investigation.

If there are additional laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases at the workplace, the employer will once again need to send notice to the local health department.

Expanded Cal/OSHA authority

AB 685 grants Cal-OSHA authority to close workplaces that “constitute an imminent hazard to employees” due to COVID-19.

But the stop-work order must be limited to the immediate area in which an “imminent hazard exists.” Cal-OSHA is not authorized to bar entry to any areas outside the hazard area.

When issuing a stop-work order the agency must post a notice in the workplace. Entry will only be permitted for cleaning, disinfecting, and eliminating the danger.

The timeline for issuing serious citations is also greatly reduced. Typically, whenever Cal/OSHA plans to issue a serious citation it has to provide notice and give the employer 15 days to provide additional evidence to refute the need for a serious citation.

For COVID-19 serious citation, Cal/OSHA will not have to provide this notice, meaning that will not have 15 days to mount a defense.

Your to-do list

You should start drafting employee COVID-19 notices, particularly what would be boilerplate information, the preamble about the outbreak as well as benefits the employees can tap.

Also, you need to be prepared to notify public health authorities if you have an outbreak.

Finally, if you are being investigated for COVID-19-related safety violations, it would be wise to produce all backup documents to inspectors during the probe as you won’t have the usual 15 days to mount a defense if you are cited for a serious violation.