- Experts say current laws don’t necessarily require companies to inform their employees if a co-worker has tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
- They say employers are required to inform an employee if they were within 6 feet of a person who tested positive for more than 15 minutes.
- However, companies aren’t allowed to release the name of the worker who contracted the novel coronavirus due to medical privacy laws.
California could soon require businesses to notify workers when someone on their job tests positive for the novel coronavirus.
That mandate is outlined in new legislation, AB 685, that California lawmakers just approved. The bill is now on the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature.
“If we are serious about getting this pandemic under control, we must get serious about creating a comprehensive reporting framework that will allow worker protection agencies, workers themselves, and the public to combine forces and minimize collective risk,” Reyes said in a news release sent to Healthline.
An expert who specializes in employment law says the Golden State is likely on solid legal ground.
“A state has broad authority to make rules about the health and safety of its citizens” said Michael C. Duff, JD, a professor of law at the University of Wyoming College of Law.
“The legislature has full authority to do that” Duff told Healthline. “California may be on the cutting edge here.”
What are the requirements?
All of this may come as a surprise if you thought your employer was already required to tell you if a co-worker tests positive for the novel coronavirus.
Experts tell Healthline that employers are responsible for notifying workers who may have been exposed to a co-worker who has tested positive, but there is not a hard-and-fast universal rule on a general notification in a workplace.
“Is there a specific line somewhere that says you must report to employees any local infection, or divulge the number of people infected? No, there’s nothing that is that specific” said Dr. Lacey Wheat-Hitchings, MPH, the department chair of McFarland Clinic Occupational Medicine in Ames, Iowa.
Wheat-Hitchings says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlines how to inform the workers who have had contact with a co-worker who tests positive.
“Usually that involves letting them know that they’ve been exposed to somebody that has been infected with COVID, so they’re at risk” she told Healthline.
“Typically, the guidance the CDC gives us is that anybody who is within 6 feet for 15 minutes or longer is potentially at risk for infection.”
But Wheat-Hitchings says the employer can’t name the specific co-worker.
That information is protected by health privacy laws, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
A safe working environment
Businesses are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to provide a safe working environment.
They are also required to report to the agency any infections contracted on the job as well as hospitalizations and deaths.
But some workers fear their companies are keeping them in the dark when it comes to COVID-19.
Amazon employees began tracking cases themselves and alerting other warehouse workers when and where someone tested positive for the virus.
Experts say the lack of information in a pandemic with a virus that is highly contagious and potentially deadly may raise questions about a company’s liability.
“Where your mind might logically go is, doesn’t that open the employer up to liability by not informing employees?” said Duff.
There are already thousands of lawsuits filed over COVID-19 related issues. The law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, LLP, has a COVID-19 complaint tracker.
A spokesman for the law firm told Healthline that as of September 10, the total number of state and federal cases was 4,883.
It’s not known how many were based on allegations of an unsafe work environment.
Duff says it may not be that easy to launch a workplace lawsuit over the virus.
“Employees in many instances are not able to bring a lawsuit,” he said. “The key thing to remember is if COVID-19 is covered by workers’ compensation, no lawsuit is possible.”
There is a rush for companies to protect themselves from liability.
A second stimulus bill has been bogged down in Congress, in part, over liability protections for hospitals, schools, and businesses.
The Republican-backed provisions would prevent workers from suing their employers if they develop COVID-19 on the job.
What you should know
If you worry you may have been exposed to a co-worker who has tested positive but you weren’t notified, here’s what you should know.
Wheat-Hitchings says it’s the employers responsibility to know where the employees are working and the people they work with.
They should get additional information from the worker who has tested positive.
Then, the contact tracing is done by an outside agency, usually a public health department.
Anybody that falls within the 6 feet, 15 minute time frame should be quarantined.
Wheat-Hitchings says there are lots of testing options coming online for employers. She encourages companies to invest in testing.
She says that will help them get people back to work faster and give the workers some “peace of mind.” As an employee, you can ask if there is an option for testing.
Wheat-Hitchings also encourages companies to let workers know all the things they are doing to keep the workplace safe.
“As an employee, it’s really an unnerving time because there really isn’t a lot of structured guidance” she said.
“So I definitely understand that there’s some worry about how do I ensure that my employer is doing his or her job to protect me.”