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California AB 685: What It Means For You and For The Future of Emergency Communication

California State Wooden Sign With A Paradise On Background

October 21, 2020 Posted by in Crisis Communications, Resident, Tenant & Vendor Communications

You probably knew it was coming. Now there is official law regarding how California employers must communicate with their employees when they or other colleagues and individuals become ill or have tested positive for COVID-19.

It’s for a good cause: to reduce confusion and eliminate misinformation, and most importantly to preserve good health and even save lives. This new legislation is consistent with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines, and sets statewide standards for how employers must proactively deal with COVID-19 cases in the workplace.

If you’re an employer not based in California, this legislation could serve you well if you face a COVID-19 situation. As well, legislation may be coming your way (a similar bill was already passed in Virginia — see below).

Let’s break it down:

What is California Assembly Bill 685?

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed this bill into law on September 17, 2020. The legislation states specific occupational safety standards with regard to how employers handle COVID-19-related communications to their employees.

As a result, the authority of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has been expanded in order to enforce these new requirements. Included are civil penalties for non-compliance.

If you are an employer in California and violate any of these rules, you could be fined a civil penalty of up to $25,000 per violation.

When does the law go into effect?

The law is official beginning on January 1, 2021. It will apply to more than one million businesses operating in the state of California.

Wasn’t there already a law?

Sort of. There were originally guidelines, but they carried no official legal obligations. However, CA AB 685 is an official law, with penalties for non-compliance.

AB 685 contains 5 components that employers must follow when it comes to communication:

If an employer becomes aware of any potential COVID-19 exposure in the workplace, the following actions must be taken within one business day of the notice of potential exposure:

Provide written notice to all impacted employees

Note the word “written.” This also includes subcontractors who may have been present on site at the time of the possible infectious period.

Create the written notice this way:

  • In a style consistent with other critical information shared with employees. This way, there is no mistake that this is a critical, important announcement not to be ignored.
  • Share it through all the usual communications channels that employees expect to receive information like this using an alert system like RedFlag — and it must be sent within one business day.
  • The communication should be in both English and in any other language understood by most employees.

Provide COVID-19 benefits information

What benefits are your impacted employees entitled to, under federal, state or local laws? Make sure you communicate any relevant information to them. These benefits could include:

  • Workers’ compensation
  • Any type of eligible leave related to COVID-19 (quarantine)
  • State-mandated leave
  • Sick leave

Be sure to include information on any employee-entitled anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation protection.

Notify employees of your disinfection and safety plans.

Update all employees — as well as subcontracted employees and their employers — about your plans to disinfect your workspace and the additional safety plans that are being implemented. Be sure that your strategy syncs up with the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) most current guidance for cleaning and disinfecting.

Notify all local authorities concerning any outbreaks.

First, be sure that the COVID-19 case meets the exact definition of an outbreak specifically defined by the California Department of Public Health: three or more cases within a 14-day period.

A company representative must notify local public health agencies within 48 hours. If there are further confirmed cases, you must notify your local health department again.

Maintain and update all employee communication records.

As an employer, you are required to maintain accurate records of all of your written notifications and communications. Keep these on file for at least three years. Store them safely, securely and confidentially, along with any other confidential employee medical information.

CA AB 685 Q&A: Additional info that may help you understand the bill.

Does the new law apply to all businesses in California?

Yes. All public and private employers.

How is an employee defined as carrying the virus?

The employee has one or more of the following:

  • A case confirmed by a laboratory, as defined by the California State Department of Health
  • A positive diagnosis from a licensed healthcare provider.
  • An order to isolate from a public health official.
  • Death as a result of COVID-19, determined by a county public health department.

How will the law be enforced?

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) now has expanded authority for enforcing this law. It can enforce safety violations through both citations and worksite shutdowns.

A similar measure has just been adopted in Virginia.

A somewhat similar bill in response to COVID-19 workplace situations has been passed in the state of Virginia. Virginia employers must also immediately notify employees who have been or may have been exposed to the virus.

It’s likely that bills may soon be passed in other states. Check here for updates.

Bottom line:

The COVID-19 legislation is meant to eliminate confusion, protect public health and ultimately stop the spread of the virus and save lives. Even if you are not a California employer, you can use the information in this blog post to set standards and guidelines for your own business and employees. If the legislation makes its way to your state, implementing these rules by using a multi-channel communication system put you ahead of the curve.

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