The District of Columbia’s New COVID-19 Workplace Safety Requirements

Josh SchmandJosh Schmand

In February, in a continued effort to protect workers in the District of Columbia and to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the D.C. Council passed the Workplace Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2021. The Workplace Safety Resolution repeals, updates, and expands the previous Protecting Businesses and Workers from COVID-19 Temporary Amendment Act of 2020 and the Protecting Businesses and Workers from COVID-19 Congressional Review Emergency Amendment Act of 2021.

Employer Policy Requirements

Previously, employers in the District had to comply with the Mayor’s mask orders, but not other orders pertinent and critical to workplace safety that address social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), or other such measures. Effective immediately, the Workplace Safety Resolution requires D.C. employers to adopt and implement social distancing and workplace protection policies to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in the workplace.

While “workplace” means any physical structure or space where an employee performs work, it does not include the home or other location where an employee teleworks that is not subject to the employer’s control. For the Workplace Safety Resolution to apply, the employer must maintain control of the physical structure or space.

The Mayor may publish a notice of the relevant portions of the Workplace Safety Resolution, and if/when that happens, employers will have to post the notice in a conspicuous location in the workplace in English and any other language spoken by at least 10% of employees.

Employer Reporting Requirements

D.C.’s Workplace Safety Resolution requires employers to report instances of their employees contracting COVID-19 in the course of and within the scope of their employment, or whose contact with others in the course of and within the scope of their employment makes the contracting of COVID-19 probable, to the Mayor. Reports can be made here, and additional guidance on when to report can be found here.

Employers in D.C. may require their employees to report a positive test for COVID-19, but the Workplace Safety Resolution prohibits employers from disclosing the identity of their employees who test positive, except to the Department of Health (DOH) or as otherwise required by law.

Additionally, employers must cooperate with contact tracers, including by providing information about employees who were in close proximity to infected employees and by providing customer lists and contact information as requested.

Employee Protections

The Workplace Safety Resolution prohibits employers from retaliating or taking adverse employment actions against employees for:

  • Complying, or attempting to comply, with the requirements of a Mayor’s Order related to the public health emergency;
  • Reasonably attempting to prevent or stop a violation of a Mayor’s Order related to the public health emergency;
  • Submitting a complaint to the Mayor or the Attorney General about a violation of the Workplace Safety Resolution;
  • Raising reasonable concerns about workplace health and safety practices related to COVID-19; or
  • Testing positive for COVID-19, having close contact with someone with COVID-19 or experiencing symptoms, needing to quarantine in accordance with DOH or U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and awaiting a test result, or caring for someone who is sick with COVID-19 symptoms, provided that the employee did not physically report to the workplace within appropriate timeframe recommended by current DOH or CDC guidance.

Prohibited adverse employment actions include a threat, verbal warning, written warning, reduction of work hours, suspension, termination, discharge, demotion, harassment, material change in the terms or conditions of the employee’s employment, or any other action that is reasonably likely to deter the employee from receiving the protections of the Workplace Safety Resolution.

Additionally, employers may not prohibit or discourage employees from using PPE or require employees to sign an agreement or comply with a workplace policy that would limit or prevent their right to disclose information about the employer’s workplace health or safety practices or hazards related to COVID-19.

Enforcement and Penalties

Both D.C.’s Mayor and Attorney General may receive and investigate complaints against employers who violate the Workplace Safety Resolution, to institute administrative or civil actions on behalf of the District against employers, and assess civil penalties. The Mayor’s office may post on the District’s Coronavirus website the name of each business for which a violation was found and a statement of the penalty imposed.

The Mayor may impose civil fines up to $1,000 per violation per employee per day for each violation of the policy and reporting requirements, and up to $2,000 per violation of the prohibited retaliation protections. The Attorney General, upon prevailing in an action against an employer, may recover up to the maximum amount of the civil fines for such violation, as well as (1) attorneys’ fees and costs, (2) restitution for lost wages, for the benefit of the aggrieved employees, and (3) other equitable relief as is necessary and appropriate.

In addition to the Mayor and the Attorney General, the Workplace Safety Resolution creates a private cause of action for violations of the prohibited retaliation protections. This means that employees may bring their own lawsuit against their employer, and, if successful, will be entitled to recover (1) attorneys’ fees and costs, (2) restitution for lost wages, (3) other equitable relief as is appropriate, and (4) punitive damages, if the employer acted with wanton or reckless disregard for the safety of the affected employee. And, unlike other employee claims against employers, under the Workplace Safety Resolution, employees need not exhaust administrative remedies before bringing suit.

PPE, Unemployment, and Workers’ Compensation

The Workplace Safety Resolution also addresses employer eligibility for grants for purchase or reimbursement of PPE, authorizes unemployment compensation for employees who voluntarily leave work due to an unsafe workplace condition, and extends workers’ compensation coverage to employees who contract COVID-19 in the course of and within the scope of their employment.

Takeaways

Employers in D.C. that have not already developed and implemented COVID-19 workplace protection policies need to do so without further delay. And, for those employers who already brought their policies, practices, and procedures into compliance with the prior workplace safety Acts, they now have to review and revise them to ensure compliance with the new Workplace Safety Resolution.

For more information, contact Josh at 301-347-1273 or jcschmand@lerchearly.com.

Voluntary Acceptance of a Transfer May Waive Employees’ Claims in Maryland and Virginia

Recognition of “Constructive Demotion” Claims Seems Imminent.

Lauri ClearyLauri Cleary

In October, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed in Laird v. Fairfax County, Virginia, that an employee voluntarily accepting a lateral transfer to another position (there, to settle a disability discrimination claim) may not be able to establish discrimination or retaliation just because the new job is not all she had hoped.

To make out a viable claim, the employee must suffer an “adverse employment action” such that the transfer resulted in “a significant detriment” to the employee. Whether an employee’s dissatisfaction rises to the level of “significant detriment” is a factual issue determined on a case-by-case basis.

A transfer must cause a “significant detriment” to be actionable

After working in the new position for some months, Ms. Laird came to believe she had been demoted. She found her new position “boring” and to be a “thinkless job, just data entry,” and hurt her potential for future promotion.

She sued the County for discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The federal trial judge in Alexandria entered judgment against her, finding her disappointment, however genuine, was not significant enough to establish a significant detriment.

After reviewing all facts anew, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Offering no real guidance on what establishes a “significant detriment,” the Court of Appeals discussed what does not. In her new job, Ms. Laird received the same compensation, asked for and received changes to the new title and duties, and received additional accommodations of her disability.

The Court noted near the end of its opinion that she had abandoned her argument that intolerable discriminatory conditions in her original job had compelled her to accept a transfer—in essence that she was forced to accept a demotion. Having waived that argument, she could no longer claim that the transfer itself had been discriminatory or retaliatory.

A transfer that is not “voluntary” may be a “constructive demotion”

Had she not abandoned her “constructive demotion” argument, Ms. Laird may have prevailed by claiming acceptance of the transfer had not been “voluntary.”

The majority did not address that potential, but a member of the three-judge panel did in a concurrence. Observing that the DC Circuit (and every other circuit court of appeals to address the issue) has recognized constructive demotion claims, and noting that this circuit already has recognized claims for “constructive discharge” (for employee left with no option but to resign), the concurrence concluded: “Logic dictates that if a demotion can constitute a constructive discharge, then a constructive demotion can similarly constitute a constructive demotion.”

Thus, as in DC, an employee who can allege a work experience so intolerable as to leave no option but to accept a transfer likely will have a viable claim for constructive demotion claim in MD and VA.

Employer takeaways

Making a lateral transfer of a (current or potential) disability claimant to settle claims of discrimination and/or retaliation may not be an easy panacea. The transfer must be both “voluntary” and it not trade one “significant detriment” (discrimination or retaliation) for another (a significantly inferior position).

For more information, contact Lauri at 301-657-0176 or lecleary@lerchearly.com.