Seyfarth Synopsis: Following its June 3, 2021 meeting, when the Cal/OSHA Standards Board voted to approve Cal/OSHA’s controversial revisions to the COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS), the Board convened an emergency meeting on June 9, 2021, where it voted unanimously to pull back the revisions. On June 11, 2021, the Board released a proposed do-over —the third attempt at an ETS—to align with recent CDPH and CDC guidance, particularly as it relates to vaccinated individuals.

You Make Choices And You Don’t Look Back—Unless You’re Cal/OSHA

As we have previously recounted, the journey of the Cal/OSHA ETS has taken on the scope of an action movie with its constant twists and turns. Standing alone from other governmental agencies, the Cal/OSHA Standards Board voted to approve highly controversial revisions to the COVID-19 ETS on June 3, 2021, which clashed with CDC guidance, CDPH guidance, and widely publicized California state rules which became effective June 15, 2021 (California’s “reopening”), all of which eliminate capacity restrictions, social distancing and permit fully vaccinated individuals to stop wearing masks in most situations.

In response to the near universal backlash from the both the regulated community and affected employees, the Board noticed an emergency meeting for June 9, 2021, which ultimately lasted four and one-half hours, during which it was widely criticized for deviating from the guidance of every other public health authority. As a result, the Board voted unanimously to pull back the revised ETS, and sent the draft ETS back to Cal/OSHA for a re-write.

Cal/OSHA issued its revised version of the proposed ETS to more closely align with CDC and CDPH on face covering restrictions, and it has added other new requirements and obligations for employers.

Will There Be Another Sequel?

Assuming there are no further unanticipated actions by the Board—a big assumption given the path of the ETS so far—the Board is expected to vote on this forthcoming version at its June 17, 2021, meeting. Barring an Executive Order from the Governor or unanticipated actions by the Board, the relaxation of the November 2020 ETS requirements is expected to become effective on about June 28, 2021. There has been some chatter from the Governor’s office that this may happen, but we wouldn’t recommend leading off in the race just yet.

Until then, employers must continue to follow the current (“old”) version of the rules, which require all employees regardless of vaccination status to remain socially distanced and wear masks at nearly all times—even though on June 15, 2021, the vaccinated general public will not be required to wear masks in most situations.

In the meantime, employers can look down the road to the new ETS that is likely around the corner.

Life Is Simple With Some Of The New Proposed ETS Provisions

Cal/OSHA has apparently (finally) heard the masses and attempted to align the ETS closer to CDC, CDPH, and California state regulations in many respects.

For fully vaccinated employees:

  • As we previously predicted, the most recent revisions to the ETS would allow fully vaccinated employees in California to remove their face coverings, even in the company of unvaccinated individuals.
    • But note that in an outbreak setting, even fully vaccinated individuals must wear face coverings if indoors, or outdoors and not physically distanced, and any fully vaccinated individuals actually conducting COVID-19 screenings must also wear a face covering.
  • Fully vaccinated employees (or those who had COVID-19 in the past 90 days and have since recovered) who have close contact with a COVID-19 case would not need to be excluded from the workplace as long as they remain asymptomatic.
  • Employers would not need to provide testing to asymptomatic individuals who have been fully vaccinated (or those recovered from COVID-19 in the prior 90 days), even if those individuals are part of an exposed group in an outbreak setting.
    • However, employers must still provide testing at no cost in a “major outbreak” setting, regardless of vaccination or immunity status.

Those employees who have not provided documentation of their fully vaccinated status need to be treated as if they are unvaccinated for all purposes in the proposed ETS.

For those employees:

  • They still must wear a face covering when indoors or in vehicles with others.
  • Cal/OSHA still “recommends” that these individuals continue to wear a face covering outdoors if physical distancing cannot be maintained.
  • Employees with close contact to a COVID-19 case would be permitted to return to work within 10 days if they do not develop symptoms, and certain essential critical infrastructure employees would be permitted to return after seven days during critical staffing shortages.

For everyone:

  • The proposed ETS would completely remove requirements for physical distancing, except for in major outbreak settings.
  • Employers must provide free testing during paid working time to all close contacts of a COVID-19 case in the workplace except those who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, and individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 in the past 90 days and are asymptomatic.
  • For people who are close contacts of a COVID-19 case and have symptoms, regardless of vaccination status, they may be allowed to return to work earlier than previously allowed if they (1) have a negative PCR test taken after becoming symptomatic, (2) at least 10 days have passed since the last known close contact, and (3) they have been symptom-free for at least 24-hours without the use of medication.
  • Employers must provide face coverings at no cost to any employee upon request only, regardless of vaccination status.
  • The requirement to install cleanable solid partitions where physical distancing cannot be maintained has been eliminated in most circumstances—it remains a suggested potential safety measure in outbreak settings, and a required safety measure in major outbreak settings.

What Else Is Covered In The Sequel?

Now, when employers are determining vaccination status, the proposed revisions make it clear that the ETS would permit “fully vaccinated” status to include employees where the employer has documentation that the individual has received a vaccine that meets FDA approval or has emergency use authorization and, if they are vaccinated outside the United States, a vaccine approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization. This revision considerably simplifies compliance issues for companies with international workforces.

In addition, the proposed revisions make it clear that the ETS would not apply to employees who are teleworking from a location of the employee’s choice, which is not under the control of the employer. So if your employees are working at Toretto’s Market or a coffee shop on their laptops—if you give them the freedom to choose their work location, the proposed ETS would not apply to them.

The proposed revised ETS also clarifies that employers need only report COVID-19 cases to their local health department and no longer need to report to the Division.

And, in a significant change for employers who have had widespread outbreaks, the definition of the end of “major outbreak” status (and thus associated testing provisions) would be changed to no longer require zero COVID-19 cases for a 14-day period—employers would just need to drop to fewer than three cases in a 14-day period.

In Many Ways, Still A Buster

Despite making long sought after revisions, Cal/OSHA has missed the mark in other areas of the proposed revisions to the ETS, which remain considerable burdens on employers.

Documentation of Vaccination Status

For instance, as noted above, the proposed revisions would require employers to “document” the vaccination status of employees. The Board indicated at the emergency meeting that it would elaborate on what documentation would be required, but missed by a mile by not including the promised explanation in the proposed revisions.

As we have seen in Santa Clara County, employers there must collect at least self-certification of vaccination status on forms from employees. At this time, it appears unlikely that self-attestation regarding vaccination status will be acceptable under the ETS, meaning that some sort of documentation (although it is still not clear what) will be required.

Exclusion Pay Requirements

Employees who are excluded from work under the provisions in the proposed ETS are entitled to earnings and benefits continuation unless they are receiving disability payments, workers’ compensation payments, or temporary disability payments, or if the employer can prove the close contact is not work related.

But the pay requirements in this version of the proposed ETS have changed. Employees no longer need to be “able and available to work” to be entitled to exclusion pay. And, if the employer decides an exception to earnings continuation applies, the employer must inform the employee of the denial and the applicable exception.

Required Respiratory Protection

The newly proposed ETS still would include a controversial requirement that employers provide respiratory protection of a correct size for voluntary use to all unvaccinated employees—but the proposed requirement has been altered slightly so that respiratory protection now must be provided only upon employee request. This alteration addresses the concerns of many employers about being forced to stockpile respiratory protection unnecessarily, which could hamper the supply for first responders and during California’s upcoming wildfire season.

Employers must also encourage respiratory protection use amongst unvaccinated employees, and train any employees who request respiratory protection on how to properly wear the respiratory protection provided, how to perform a seal check, and on how facial hair may interfere with a seal.

Further, employers must provide respiratory protection for voluntary use to all employees in an exposed group, regardless of vaccination status, if the employer is in a “major outbreak” status, i.e., having 20 or more employee COVID-19 cases in an exposed group during a 30-day period.

Face Coverings

Permissible face coverings under the proposed ETS would include only a surgical mask, a medical procedure mask, a respirator worn voluntarily, or a fabric material mask of at least two layers of material. This means many of the normal fabric masks employees have been using will no longer be permissible.

Employers also must “ensure” that the face coverings are worn over the nose and mouth by unvaccinated individuals.

Testing

Employers would be required to make COVID-19 testing available at no cost to employees with COVID-19 symptoms who are not fully vaccinated, during the employees’ paid time—this is regardless of whether there was any potential work-related exposure to COVID-19.

Employer Provided Transportation

The proposed ETS expands the restrictions in employer-provided transportation to cover a much broader array of workplace settings. While it previously applied only in situations traveling to and from work, the proposed ETS now covers employer-provided transportation to and from different jobsites, delivery sites, buildings, stores, facilities, or fields.

Employers now must, to the extent feasible, assign employees with shared vehicles to distinct groups and keep those groups separate.

The saving grace is that this expanded section does not apply where all employees are fully vaccinated.

Notification and Training Requirements

All employees exposed to a COVID-19 case in the workplace must be notified in writing of potential exposure, in a form readily understandable by the employees. This notice may be by personal service, email, or text message, and if the employer knows the employee has limited literacy, then the employer may give oral notice in a language understandable by the employee.

Employee training requirements must include information on:

    • legally mandated sick and vaccination leave, if applicable,
    • the employer’s policies for providing respirators and how to properly use them,
    • the fact that COVID-19 is an airborne disease and N95s and more protective respirators protect the users from airborne disease while face coverings primarily protect people around the user,
    • how to access COVID-19 testing and vaccination, and the fact that vaccination is effective at preventing COVID-19 transmission, serious illness, and death,
    • the conditions under which face coverings must be worn at the workplace, and that they are recommended outdoors for people who are not fully vaccinated if physical distancing cannot be maintained, and
    • employees’ rights to request free face coverings and wear face coverings at work, regardless of vaccination status, without retaliation.

Workplace Solutions

As always, don’t jump the starting line as developments on the workplace safety front in California continue to occur fast and furious. With new requirements continually being issued, please don’t hesitate to reach out to one of the authors of this post or a member of our Workplace Safety team with any questions.