Newsom signs bill requiring businesses to disclose coronavirus infections

By Chase DiFeliciantonio

California businesses must disclose infections or exposures to the coronavirus in the workplace after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law Thursday outlining company reporting standards to workers and the state.

Supporters of the bill, AB685, say it is a crucial step in protecting many essential workers still on the job. Opponents say it is not clear when employers have to sound the alarm to workers and what exactly needs to be disclosed.

Newsom also signed SB1159, which establishes a presumption around workers’ compensation eligibility applicable to most California employers with virus outbreaks into 2022, expanding on a previous executive order from the governor.

He also signed SB1383 into law, which allows Californians who work for an employer with five or more employees to use paid family leave benefits without fear of losing their jobs.

“We’ve asked our workers to keep food on the table, food on the shelves, and ensure that other essential services were also provided” during the pandemic, the bill’s author Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, D-San Bernardino, said during a virtual signing ceremony Thursday.

Reyes said state law did not previously require companies to tell workers about confirmed or potential infections at work, something that had largely been left up to the discretion of companies during the pandemic.

“We feel like there’s been a lot of information that’s been hidden from us,” said Sharon Hechler during the signing, a union grocery store worker of nearly five decades in Southern California.

AB685 goes into effect Jan. 1 and requires employers to tell workers in writing they may have been exposed to the virus and tell them about their options for taking time away from work and other safety steps.

“What’s a little confusing about AB685 is the notices to employees,” said Ben Ebbink, a Fisher & Phillips attorney in Sacramento.

The law requires companies to tell their employees about any potential exposure to the virus, particularly those employees at a worksite who may have been exposed to an infected person, along with anyone else who might have been infected.

“Notification has to include all the COVID-related benefits the employee might be entitled to under federal, state and local law,” Ebbink said, noting companies also have to inform employees of their disinfection and safety plan.

That might be a particular challenge for small businesses, with localities enacting different rules around safety and sick leave during the pandemic.

“Not every employer has an HR department or legal counsel they can turn to,” Ebbink said.

Companies already must disclose some cases of the coronavirus to local health departments, but that information is not made public. Companies have to report workplace-related injuries to state safety regulator Cal/OSHA, but there has been disagreement on if that applies to cases of the coronavirus.

The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board is also considering holding employers to stricter rules similar to the state’s aerosolized transmissible disease standard intended to protect health care workers from diseases in the air.

AB685 also requires that businesses notify health authorities if infections become widespread, information that the California Department of Public Health can then make public, potentially with a company name published alongside a notice of infection.

Opponents have criticized that section of the bill as a “name and shame” strategy that will not increase workers’ safety.

The bill also creates anti-retaliation protections for employees who report infections, to encourage them to come forward.

Chase DiFeliciantonio is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @ChaseDiFelice