New COVID-19 protections for California employees

AB 685
Posted at 8:38 AM, Jan 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-16 11:38:57-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — As the number of Californians testing positive for COVID-19 continues to climb, California workers have new protections to help keep them healthy.

Assembly Bill 685, which took effect Jan. 1 of this year, deals with COVID-19 exposure, notification, and violations.

The new law requires employers to provide notice within one business day to employees who have been exposed to COVID-19 at their worksite and report to the California Department of Public Health if an outbreak occurs.

"The reason that we had to introduce this is because we had lots of employers who were not notifying their employees when they had been exposed to someone who was positive for COVID-19,” said bill author Assemblymember Eloise Reyes. "It seemed like it was common sense, but it wasn't happening."

Majority Leader Reyes said California is the first state in the country to require this type of notification and reporting.

"This is happening throughout our great country, that there's no requirement for employers to notify their employees, and they were not notifying them," she said. "We heard of some horrendous stories here, and we need to do something. It's a small thing to do. Just notify your employees they've been exposed. They can then make the decisions for themselves."

Reyes said AB 685 establishes a clear standard and protocol that must be followed to address workplace exposure and worker protection.

"I always think it's good when employees have protections that make sure they are not being retaliated against," said San Diego attorney Aaron Olsen.

According to AB 685, the law requires employers to report workplace outbreaks to the local health department. It also requires the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to publicly report information on workplace outbreaks by industry.

The CDPH website explains, "starting in January 2021, AB 685 will require CDPH to share statewide information about workplace outbreaks by industry. This information will be posted on the CDPH website. Local health departments will be required to provide a link to this information on the CDPH website on their own websites. Local health departments are not required to publicly post information about outbreaks by industry within their own jurisdictions, but may choose to do so voluntarily.

Reporter Adam Racusin asked the state if they will be sharing the exact locations of outbreaks. State officials pointed us back to the newly created AB 685 state website and guidance. They said, "While the measure was passed in September, the law, including the employer reporting requirement, did not start until January 1, 2021. This means that the obligation to report to local health departments just began, and we will be providing information when it is received from local public health departments."

The information released about outbreaks varies by each local health department.

Los Angeles County shares the locations of Non-Residential Settings with Three or More Laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 Cases.

In San Diego County, health officials say they report details related to outbreaks but do not release the names and addresses of outbreaks. There have been exceptions in situations where the county believes there is an action the public needs to take to protect their health. In 2020 public health officials released outbreak details related to San Diego State University and Awaken Church.

In court documents, the county has argued, "There is a significant government interest during a pandemic in the candid exchange of information between those linked to these outbreak locations and the Public Health Officer's disease investigators. Contact tracing only works when those that are being interviewed are completely honest and forthcoming with relevant information. The Department of Public Health's investigators assure those they interview that the information they provide will be kept confidential. Many people investigators speak with are fearful that providing the name of the location where they were potentially infected could have negative effects on that location whether it be a church, a restaurant or a place of business. Additionally, it has the potential to reveal the diagnosis of particular individuals if disclosed. Releasing the names of these locations and the addresses will have a chilling effect on the open communication necessary to ensure the Public Health Officer is able to effectively combat active outbreaks. The Public Health Officer must also take measures to protect the medical privacy of those with a communicable disease diagnosis. Specifically, care must be taken to avoid linking a diagnosis to a specific person, or persons-unless doing so is necessary during an active investigation. Naming specific locations, which in many cases is a workplace, will focus in on a potentially small pool of particular individuals. In the field of health privacy, publicly revealing that level of detail is too close of a link to the medical information of specific individuals."

Reporter Adam Racusin asked other counties in California about their policy regarding publicly released outbreak information.

"The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department requests that employers with three or more COVID-19 cases report this information in a timely manner," said Santa Barbara County Public Health Department spokeswoman Jackie Ruiz. "This information is used in extensive contact tracing investigations. Sharing workplace outbreak information is only valuable in circumstances in which there was high risk of exposure to other persons. Our Disease Control team works diligently to assure all sources of transmission are accounted for in investigations."

Assemblymember Reyes believes the new law creates more transparency.

Reporter Adam Racusin asked her if the public should know where employees are reporting outbreaks.

"I think that we want to find the balance. We want to be sure that it goes back to transparency,” Reyes said. “If there's an outbreak in your community, you want to know about it so you can protect yourself. We're not trying to shame somebody because if there's an outbreak, it's not the fault of that company, but we do need to know where the outbreaks are, and the information is provided on websites, but if there's some other way that we can provide this information to the community we've got to find those ways."