Oregon and California passed emergency coronavirus rules in November, providing protections for workers in lieu of a federal standard.
Credit: National Renewable Energy Lab via Flickr

Two West Coast states have stepped up to provide protections for working people during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, joining just two others that have done the same, largely in the absence of a federal rule.

"I applaud these efforts to create clear standards on how to keep everyone safe during this incredibly uncertain time," said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. "No one should have to choose between a paycheck and the possibility of getting sick — or getting a loved one sick."

Oregon's emergency temporary standard took effect on Nov. 16, with certain parts phased in, after months of pressure from the state's AFL-CIO chapter and other labor organizations. Included in the new standard, which was drafted with input from labor groups, including the IBEW:

  • Employers must ensure six-foot distancing between all people in the workplace, unless it can be shown it is not feasible for some activities.
  • Employers must ensure that all individuals — including employees, part-time workers and customers — wear a mask, face covering or face shield in line with the Oregon Health Authority's statewide guidance.
  • Employers must provide masks, face coverings, or face shields for employees free of cost.
  • Employers must maximize the effectiveness of existing ventilation systems, maintain and replace air filters, and clean intake ports providing fresh or outdoor air. The temporary rule does not require employers to purchase or install new ventilation systems.
  • Employers must conduct a risk assessment — that involves participation from employees — to gauge potential employee exposure to COVID-19, including addressing specific questions about minimizing such exposure.
  • Employers must develop an infection control plan addressing several elements, including when workers must use personal protective equipment and a description of specific hazard controls.
  • Employers must provide information and training to workers about the relevant topics related to COVID-19, and in a manner and language understood by workers.
  • Employers must notify affected workers within 24 hours of a work-related COVID-19 infection.
  • Employers must cooperate with public health officials if testing within the workplace is necessary.
  • If an employee must quarantine or isolate, the employer must follow proper work reassignment and return-to-work steps.

The rules, which include further specifics for certain industries, are set to expire in May, by which time the Beaver State plans to have a permanent standard in place. Oregon AFL-CIO President Graham Trainor said the temporary rule was "a step closer to workplace safety, but with room for improvement."

"Oregon OSHA's Emergency Temporary Standard is a strong step forward, but eight months into this pandemic we are seeing a tremendous increase in cases both at work and throughout our communities," he said in a statement on Nov. 19. "As we move closer to drafting a permanent standard, we must see stronger ventilation requirements for all industries. Infected air needs to be moved out of places of employment and clean air in, and the Emergency Temporary Standard only requires all other employers to optimize their current systems. Keeping workers safe cannot be done through half-measures."

Just a few days later, California issued its own emergency workplace rule for the coronavirus. Under the new standard, which can be extended for up to 14 months, employers are required to:

  • Write and implement a COVID-19 prevention program.
  • Identify COVID-19 hazards and work with employees to correct them.
  • Ensure all employees are separated from others by at least six feet wherever possible.
  • Provide face coverings and ensure employees wear them properly.
  • Improve ventilation, maximize outdoor air and install partitions to reduce aerosol transmission where distancing isn't possible.
  • Investigate and respond to workplace COVID-19 cases, and report the information to the local health department whenever required by law.
  • Ensure workers who become infected don't return to work until certain criteria are met and pay them throughout their quarantines.
  • Provide free testing to all employees who may have been exposed. In the event of a major outbreak, provide testing every two weeks until there are no new cases for a 14-day period.
  • Provide training and instruction to employees on COVID-19 policies as well as information on related benefits the employee may be entitled to.

The standard took effect 10 days after a Nov. 19 unanimous vote by the board that oversees California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA. Despite the lopsided decision, it included more than seven hours of public comment, reported KQED. At one point there were over 550 attendees, both supporting and opposing the measure. But in the end, after listening to comments that started at 10 a.m. and ended after the sun had set, the worker's voice won the day.

"I don't want to have this on my conscience that we didn't do something when we actually had the chance to do it," said Board Chair David Thomas.

Oregon and California join Virginia and Michigan as the only other states to adopt such a standard.

Workers across industries, along with labor organizations, have been calling for a federal-level standard, something which could be done through the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but so far, OSHA has chosen only largely unenforceable guidance and overreliance on its general duty clause, a broad guideline that rarely results in citations or meaningful penalties.

As president-elect, Joe Biden vowed to issue mandatory workplace safety rules that employers must follow to protect workers from the coronavirus, reported Politico, believing that a national standard is preferable to a patchwork of state regulations, and that doing so would get more people back to work faster since everyone would be following the same rule.

"Without a federal standard, we're leaving countless workers across the country to essentially fend for themselves," Stephenson said. "That's not how you lead, especially during a crisis like this. We're hopeful that the new administration, led by Joe Biden, will take concrete action to protect working families regardless of where they live."