New Calif. workplace law to help cope with COVID met with opposition

When a COVID-19 outbreak struck the Tesla plant in Fremont last spring, workers accused the company of not being upfront about possible infections.

"I'm very worried for my health," said one worker last May.

Tesla denied the allegation. But such concerns perhaps helped lead to a new California law that takes effect Friday.

Under assembly bill 685, a business must notify employees within a day of learning of any potential COVID-19 exposure at that workplace. It must also offer them information on benefits such as workers’ compensation and sick leave.

It also offers protection against retaliation and infections must be reported to local public health agencies. The law is supported by labor organizations concerned about worker safety. And it's applauded by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

"For the business community, the number one priority is to get the pandemic under control, get people vaccinated, and get the economy going again. If AB 685 is part of that, that is great," said Jay Cheng, spokesman for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

But many statewide business and trade groups fought against the bill, including the California Farm Bureau and the California Chamber of Commerce, which said in a recent letter to lawmakers the wording is unclear.

"Its definition of ‘exposure’ is broad and vague, resulting in triggering ‘exposures’ in non-sensical scenarios," it said, in part.

But the medical community largely disagrees.

"It's really a great thing. In essence, you want to have as many notification channels as possible to let workers know how safe or unsafe that particular contact is," said UCSF infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Chin-Hong.

Up until now, how much a company notifies employees about a workplace COVID exposure has largely been up to employers and local health departments.

"If you know what is clearly outlined in state law you can protect yourself from legal liability. You can say I did what I was supposed to do. I informed people I was supposed to inform," said Cheng.

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