California Approves a New Set of COVID-19 Emergency Workplace Standards

If you conduct business in California, you need to pay attention to Cal/OSHA’s new set of workplace standards.

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Cutout image of the state of California for Paid Sick Leave articleEarlier this month, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (better known as Cal/OSHA) adopted new emergency temporary standards (ETS) with regards to COVID-19. The standards align with guidance from the state’s Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention..

On June 17, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order waiving the usual 10-day approval process. 

The new standard provides guidelines for physical distancing and face coverings for California workers who have received their COVID-19 vaccination. 

California may not be the first state to lift or reduce distancing and mask mandates, but they often lead the nation in policy. The newest ETS applies to all employers, except for businesses that have a single employee who does not come in contact with others, or businesses whose employees work from home. Many mandates have been changed based on the health or vaccination status of employees. The updates include: 

For fully vaccinated/COVID-negative employees

  • Fully vaccinated employees do not need to wear a mask at work unless there is an outbreak* of COVID-19 at the organization. 
  • Vaccinated employees may choose to wear a mask: employers must provide face masks on request. 
  • Fully vaccinated employees do not have to follow physical distancing guidelines.
  • Employees who test negative for COVID-19 weekly do not have to follow physical distancing guidelines, but must continue to wear a mask.

For unvaccinated employees: 

  • Non-vaccinated employees must continue to wear masks indoors and in vehicles with others. Masks must be at least 2 layers thick and worn fully over the nose and mouth. 
  • Non-vaccinated employees do not need to wear a mask outdoors.
  • Physical distancing is only required indoors if the unvaccinated employee is not wearing a face covering. 
  • Employers must provide respirators on request for all employees who are not fully vaccinated and who work indoors or in vehicles with others, whether or not the other person in the workplace or vehicle has been vaccinated. 

*Outbreak of COVID-19 

Even vaccinated employees will need to wear a mask in the event of a workplace outbreak. California defines an outbreak as “3 or more cases in an exposed group of employees within a 14-day period.” 

A major outbreak includes “20 or more cases in an exposed group of employees within a 30-day period.” 

These outbreaks are limited to cases discovered for employees at the worksite, not working remotely or off-site. 

If there is an outbreak at the workplace, the state requires immediate COVID-19 testing of unvaccinated, exposed employees; then additional testing one week later. The testing must be free to exposed unvaccinated employees and must continue weekly until the outbreak concludes. 

Free workplace testing must also be made available to unvaccinated employees who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms or have had close contact with COVID-19 at work. 

Symptomatic, vaccinated employees who have had close contact with COVID-19 at work will also receive free testing as will all employees in the event of a major outbreak in the workplace. 

Quarantine periods will not apply to employees who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic; nor to employees who have recovered from COVID-19  within the last 90 days.

Documenting vaccinated employees

California employers will have 3 options to verify employees have been vaccinated. A best practice would be to pick one option and use it for all staff members, regardless of their status within the organization. The choices include defining who is “fully vaccinated” and how to document their status:  

  1. Employees provide proof of vaccination, including their vaccine card or an image of it, or a healthcare document verifying vaccination status. The employee maintains a copy of the document, or  
  2. Employees provide proof of vaccination, including the same document. The employer keeps a record of which employees provided the documentation, but do not keep a copy for their files, or 
  3. Employees self-attest to their own vaccination status. The employer maintains a record of which employees self-attest.

Employers who do not want to maintain a documentation process or records may do so. They will then opt to treat all employees as unvaccinated and maintain masking and distancing guidelines accordingly. Employers are not required to ask an employee about their vaccination status. Employees with unknown vaccination status must be treated as unvaccinated.

What hasn’t changed under California guidelines

Although mask and distancing requirements have been updated, some COVID-19 protocols remain in place.

Businesses are required to maintain an effective COVID-19 Prevention Program, with written documentation of steps they perform to keep the workplace safe available for employees to read. 

They must provide COVID-19 training to staff; and continue daily screening and cleaning protocols. 

Businesses will also need to continue to provide wages for employees excluded from work due to COVID-19, in accordance with state and federal guidelines. Tracing, tracking and response efforts will need to stay in place in the event of COVID-19 cases or outbreaks at the workplace, as well. 

As we return to work after this unprecedented slowdown, many small to medium sized businesses are looking for assistance on how to return safely to work. While California rules do not apply in other states, they provide guidelines businesses may wish to adopt to provide the safest possible workplace reopening for their staff and customers. 

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