New emergency workplace safety standards mandated due to COVID-19

Virginia is now the first state to adopt mandatory emergency workplace safety standards due to COVID-19.
Published: Jul. 16, 2020 at 7:20 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Virginia is now the first state to adopt mandatory emergency workplace safety standards due to COVID-19.

Governor Ralph Northam announced July 15 that Virginia will now mandate that employers provide workers with appropriate personal protective equipment, social distancing, sanitation and more, through Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS). That makes Virginia the first state to implement such strict measures, a move being applauded by advocates for workers’ rights, and scrutinized by some Virginia businesses.

“In my estimation, not only is this going to protect workers, but it’s also going to protect businesses and keep Virginia pushing forward,” Legal Aid Justice Center Senior Attorney Jason Yarashes said. “Because really, when business is doing well, workers are doing well and vice versa.”

The new safety rules sort all employers into categories based on risk of exposure. The rankings range from very high and high, mostly healthcare workers and first responders, to medium, which includes most retail and restaurant jobs, and lower. Employees interacting with customers must be masked and socially distanced. If social distancing isn’t possible, increased hand washing and sanitizer must be provided.

The standards also require all employees, regardless of risk level, be told if another employee tests positive for coronavirus within 24 hours. If an employee tests positive, they cannot return to work for at least 10 days, or until they test negative twice in a row.

Early drafts of the standards also provided workers with immediate access to worker’s compensation if they tested positive for COVID-19, though it is unclear at this time if that made it into the final version of the regulations.

“Virginia has become a guiding post in terms of enforcing worker protections related to covering the workplace,” Yarashes explained. “Giving a blueprint for states, not just in the south but also throughout the whole country, to protect workers during this historic pandemic in the same way that we’re protecting businesses and the public health.”

The new standards also propose penalties for businesses that don’t comply. It allows employees to file complaints with the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, and grants them whistleblower protections. While the maximum penalty for a violation is $13,000, repeat offenders could face fines up to $130,000.

Representatives from all corners of Virginia’s business community rallied against the standards, questioning the need for additional regulations. Some, like the Virginia Dental Association, objected to requirements for additional documentation and asked for an exemption, calling it a burdensome add-on to measures they already have in place.

Several central Virginia wineries also objected to the provisions that would allow COVID-19 positive employees to claim worker’s compensation, saying it unfairly laid the responsibility solely on the shoulders of businesses for everything workers do, even outside of work.

The Virginia Department of Labor and Industry is still working on finalizing the language of the ETS regulations, and expects they will be published by the end of the month. While the emergency standards only last 6 months, they could be extended or even made permanent if necessary.

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