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In-Depth: 2021 brings new coronavirus laws for employers, workers

What to do if there's COVID in the workplace
Posted at 5:57 AM, Jan 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-11 10:20:19-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - The new year brings new laws for employers to follow when handling coronavirus cases in the workplace.

"Employers are having to adapt to a rapidly shifting legal landscape that is trying to keep up with a rapidly-shifting pandemic," says legal expert Dan Eaton.

Assembly Bill 685, which became law on January 1, spells out many of the new responsibilities employers have.

According to the bill, employers must now notify all employees of a positive test, in writing, within 24 hours. They also have to tell workers about all possible benefits, like paid leave or workers' compensation.

Furthermore, employers must detail their plans to clean and sanitize possible infected areas.

Assembly Bill 685 also says if there are multiple positive cases, employers have 48 hours to notify the Health Department of a potential outbreak.

"What you see an AB 685 is the legislature coming in and reinforcing and expanding the obligations that Cal/OSHA instituted in response to the surge that we saw at the end of last year," says Eaton.

AB 685 also gives Cal/OSHA more power to punish companies that don't comply with its rules. OSHA can now issue citations and fines without a previously required 15-day warning. They can also shut down a business or area within a company that raises an employee's exposure risk.

Workers also have more options now to stay home from work if there is a possibility of contracting or spreading the disease.

The recently passed relief bill in Congress extended the "Families First Coronavirus Response Act" through the end of March. It provides paid leave for people who have to quarantine. Companies who choose to offer it can recoup the cost through payroll tax credits.

California also expanded the "Family Rights Act," which gives 12 weeks of unpaid leave to workers, with no threat of losing their job.

Before the expansion, only companies that had more than 50 employees were included in this rule. Now that 2021 has started, it covers any business with more than five employees.

Meyers Nave attorney Arlene Yang says it's a dramatic expansion that gives protection to thousands of people.

"While it may be difficult (for a business) to try to manage without that one employee without hiring someone else, it's a really great benefit to help employees during this time," Yang says.

And when it comes to vaccinations, 2021 has rules for that as well.

The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission says companies can require workers to be vaccinated. But there are two exceptions to that rule: religious beliefs and health concerns.

Both exceptions must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

"The employer is going to have to go through what's called a reasonable accommodation process," says Yang. "They must determine whether there's some option that may be available to accommodate that employee, rather than just firing them."

Yang's law firm is offering a pair of free webinars to help business owners sort through all of the new laws. Anyone interested can click here for more information.