NEWS: Masks still needed? What new COVID workplace rules mean for California workers

Posted June 4th, 2021


JUNE 03, 2021 07:37 PM, UPDATED JUNE 03, 2021 07:53 PM

Almost two dozen gathered for a remembrance for workers who died from COVD-19 in 2020 during an event on Worker’s Memorial Day, held on the old Kings County Courthouse steps Wednesday evening, April 28, 2021

A California state board on Thursday narrowly rejected, then ultimately approved a plan that eases the requirement for employees to wear masks and practice social distancing.

The vote came as board members said they were uncomfortable with moving forward with a plan that would have still required workers to wear masks indoors unless everyone else around them is fully vaccinated.

Some members wanted the rule to be closer to federal and state guidance, which allows (or will soon allow) fully vaccinated people to be unmasked even indoors.

However, the board reversed its vote after an hour of discussion, after realizing that rejecting the updated rule would mean the current regulation, which requires masks to be worn at all times indoors, as well as outdoors if less than six feet away from others, would have stayed in effect.

The new rule goes into effect June 15 pending administrative approval. The standards board of the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, commonly called Cal-OSHA, voted to convene a subcommittee to immediately revisit the new rule, to see if it can more closely adhere to the federal and state guidance.

Unless wearing respirators such as N95 masks, workers will need to stay physically distanced until July 31 if they work indoors or in outdoor events with over 10,000 participants or spectators, according to the rule.

Employers will need to provide respirators such as N95 masks to be used voluntarily by workers who are not vaccinated and working indoors or at large outdoor events. Employers will need to provide testing for those not vaccinated at no cost during paid time if they have symptoms of COVID-19.

Employers will be required to pay workers who self-isolate because of their exposure to COVID-19 at workplaces. Fully vaccinated workers or workers who had recovered from COVID-19 within 90 days don’t have to self-isolate as long as they don’t have symptoms.

The requirement to provide N95 respirators drew protests from those in the business community. Rob Moutrie, a policy advocate at the California Chamber of Commerce, told the board members that the requirement will put all the burden on employers rather than providing incentives for workers to be vaccinated.

The mask and social distancing requirement will also confuse businesses given the CDC and state guidances, said Sarah Wiltfong, a policy manager for the Los Angeles County Business Federation.

“Employees and employers alike are looking forward to operating without burdensome and unnecessary regulations,” Wiltfong said. “Cal-OSHA provided extra restrictions contrary to what the governor and the CDC are saying is not necessary, (bringing) confusion and causing businesses to be subject to the violations they were likely not made aware of.”

But others, many from labor organizations, urged the board to adopt the rule as written. They said the rule is needed to provide protection for workers, especially with millions of Californians yet to be vaccinated.

“Workplaces are very fundamentally different place than somewhere you just go, a store you just go to,” Mitch Steiger, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation, told the board. “When you are a worker, you have much less control over your own environment, that you’re there for much longer during the day.”

Eric Berg, deputy chief of Cal/OSHA, noted that only 41% of Californians in the under-resourced neighborhoods are fully vaccinated, compared to 65% of residents in the neighborhoods with the most resources.

He also cited a recently published study from the University of North Carolina researchers that physical distancing and face masks could prevent thousands of new infections.

Board members voting in favor of the rule said the pandemic is not yet over, with the state reporting hundreds of new cases a day. They also said the rule needed to be voted on soon so the current regulation, which is much more restrictive, wouldn’t be in place by June 15.

But those who opposed the rule said it needed to be better refined to prevent confusion for businesses.

“If there’s great confusion, people will either not do anything, or they’re going to do the wrong thing,” said Chris Laszcz-Davis, a board member who represents employers.

Wendy Lazerson, a Bay Area-based lawyer co-chairing labor and employment practice at law firm Sidley Austin, said the rule can pose a number of complications for workers and businesses alike.

“If there’s anyone unvaccinated in a room, everyone’s gotta wear a mask,” she said. “Everyone is impacted by someone who decided not to get a vaccine. That’s going to cause some unhappy people at work.”

Training people to properly wear N95 respirators could also be challenging, she said.

The board had first planned to vote on the rule on May 20. But it postponed the decision to consider newly released federal and state guidance.

In this March 27, 2020, file photo, a worker, wearing a protective mask against the coronavirus, stocks produce before the opening of Gus’s Community Market in San Francisco. Farm workers, grocery store and fast-food employees and delivery drivers will receive two weeks of paid sick leave so they won’t feel pressured to keep working while infected with the coronavirus, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced. The executive order signed Thursday, April 16, covers those who work for large employers, filling a gap left by a federal act this month that required employers to provide emergency paid sick leave but exempted those with more than 500 workers. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File) BEN MARGOT AP
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