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

Josh SchmandJosh Schmand

This month, 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.

D.C. Passes Ban on Non-Compete Agreements

Josh SchmandJosh Schmand

On December 15, 2020, the District of Columbia Council unanimously passed the Ban On Non-compete Agreements Amendment Act Of 2020. The Act generally prohibits the use of non-compete provisions in employment agreements and workplace policies. The Act will soon become law as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is likely to sign the Act and Congress is unlikely to pass a joint resolution of disapproval.

The ban on non-competes in the Act will apply to all employers in the District and nearly any employee working in the District regardless of how much they are earning. Employers will also have to provide written notice of the Act to all of their employees.

What is a non-compete agreement?

Under the Act, a “non-compete provision” is a written agreement between an employer operating in the District and any individual who performs work (or who an employer reasonably anticipates will perform work) in the District that prohibits the individual from: (1) being simultaneously or subsequently employed by another person, (2) performing work or providing services for pay for another person, or (3) operating the individual’s own business.

The Act does not apply to otherwise lawful provisions that restrict an individual from disclosing their employer’s confidential, proprietary, or sensitive information, client list, customer list, or trade secrets. The Act also does not apply to otherwise lawful provisions contained within or executed contemporaneously with an agreement between the buyer and seller of a business where the seller agrees not to compete with the buyer’s business.

The Act does not address solicitation of employees or customers, so employers should review non-solicitation agreements with counsel to ensure compliance.

What does the Act prohibit?

Under the Act, no employer in the District of Columbia may require or request that an employee performing work in the District (or who an employer reasonably anticipates will perform such work) sign an agreement that includes a non-compete provision. Additionally, no employer in D.C. may have a workplace policy that similarly prohibits an employee from: (1) being employed by another person, (2) performing work or providing services for pay for another person, or (3) operating the individual’s own business. Any such agreements entered into after the Act becomes law will be void and unenforceable in court.

The Act also prohibits employers from retaliating (or threatening to retaliate) against employees for: (1) refusing to agree to a non-compete provision, (2) failing to comply with a non-compete provision or workplace policy made unlawful by the Act, (3) asking, informing, or complaining to an employer, a coworker, a lawyer, or governmental entity about the existence, applicability, or validity of a non-compete provision or a workplace policy that the employee reasonably believes is prohibited by the Act, or (4) requesting information that the Act requires be provided from an employer.

Are there any exceptions?

The ban on non-competes in the Act do not apply to:

  1. The District of Columbia government or the United States government;
  2. Volunteers engaging in the activities of an educational, charitable, religious, or nonprofit organization;
  3. Lay members elected or appointed to office within the discipline of any religious organization and engaged in religious functions;
  4. Individuals employed as a casual babysitter in the residence of their employer; and
  5. Licensed physicians that perform work on behalf of an employer engaged primarily in the delivery of medical services earning at least $250,000 per year.*

* Employers seeking to have medical specialists sign a non-compete agreement must provide the document to the employee for review at least 14 days before executing the agreement along with written notice of the Act.

Are there notice requirements?

Employers must provide their employees with the following text: “No employer operating in the District of Columbia may request or require any employee working in the District of Columbia to agree to a non-compete policy or agreement, in accordance with the Ban on Non-Compete Agreements Amendment Act of 2020.”

Employers must provide existing employees with this notice, in writing, within 90 days after the Act becomes law. Going forward, employers have seven days after an individual becomes an employee to provide the required written notice. And, employers have 14 days to provide the notice in response to a written request from an employee.

What are the penalties?

In addition to having a non-compete provision becoming void and unenforceable in court, employees who are asked to sign a non-compete agreement banned by the Act or who suffer retaliation from an employer for activities prohibited by the Act may file a complaint with the Mayor or take action in civil court.

The Mayor may assess administrative penalties of $350 to $1,000 for each violation, except that penalties for retaliation against employees shall be greater than $1,000. The Mayor and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) may also require employers to submit records showing compliance with the Act upon demand at any reasonable time.

Employers that violate the Act shall be liable for relief payable to each employee of $500 to $1,000 for each violation, and at least $3,000 to each employee for subsequent violations. But, employers that attempt to enforce newly void or unenforceable non-compete provisions shall be liable for relief payable to each employee of at least $1,500, and at least $3,000 to each employee for subsequent violations. And, employers that retaliate against employees in violation of the Act shall be liable for relief payable to each employee of $1,000 to $2,500 for each violation, and at least $3,000 to each employee for subsequent violations.

How does the Act compare to Maryland and Virginia’s restrictions?

The original proposal of the legislation introduced in October 2019 prohibited the use of non-compete agreements for employees whose rate of pay was less than or equal to three times the minimum wage, similar to the restrictions in neighboring Virginia and Maryland, which have prohibited non-compete agreements for certain “low” wage earners. However, as discussed above, if the Act becomes law, it will expand the ban to nearly any employee in the District and become one of the Nation’s strictest laws concerning bans on non-compete agreements.

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.

D.C. Enacts New Law Requiring Sexual Harassment Training by Employers of Tipped Employees (and Associated Reporting Requirements); Posting; and Notice to Employees of Employment Laws

The District of Columbia enacted important legislation which mandates sexual harassment training for tipped employees (and associated harassment reporting requirements for employers with tipped employees). The new law also mandates postings in the workplace as well as notice to employees of various employment laws.

Overview

By way of background, the District of Columbia, in 2018 enacted the Tipped Wage Worker Fairness Amendment Act (the “Act”). The Act contained a provision which required that D.C. provide funding before the new law would take effect. This summer, D.C. repealed the funding restriction. As a result, the Act took effect on October 30, 2020. Key components of the Act are summarized below.

Employers of Tipped Employees Must Conduct Workplace Harassment Training

The Act requires that the D.C. government provide a sexual harassment training course for employees of businesses that have tipped employees (or a certified list of providers who may provide such training).

New employees who were hired before the law became effective must be trained within two years of the effective date, either online or in person. New employees who are hired after the new law became effective must receive the training within 90 days of hire unless the employee participated in training within the prior two years. Business operators, owners, and managers must be trained every two years. Like employees, business operators and owners may participate in the training either online or in person. Managers, on the other hand, must be trained in person. The law imposes upon employers a requirement to submit a certificate of training to the D.C. Office of Human Rights within 30 days after each employee, manager, owner or operator has completed the training.

Reporting Requirements for Training of Tipped Employees

Importantly, the Act imposes upon employers of tipped employees certain reporting requirements as follows:

  • File with the D.C. Office of Human Rights a copy of the employer’s policy outlining how employees can report incidences of sexual harassment concerns to management and to the D.C. government.
  • Distribute the sexual harassment policy to employees and post the policy in a conspicuous place accessible to all employees in or about the employer’s premises.
  • Document incidences of sexual harassment reported to management, including whether the reported harassment was by an owner, operator, managerial employee, or non-managerial employee.
  • Report to the D.C. Office of Human Rights on a yearly basis the number of sexual harassment allegations reported to management, and the total number of reported harassers who were owners, operators, managerial employees or non-managerial employees.

Reporting Requirements for Postings and for Information Which Must Be Provided to Employees

Within 120 days of the effective date (October 30, 2020) of the Act, the Mayor’s Office is required to create a poster which summarizes the rights of D.C. employees under numerous D.C. employment statutes, and also create a website which clearly and precisely describes the rights of employees under each of these employment laws. Thereafter, employers are required to print copies of the information posted by the District of Columbia on its website and organize it into a single source, such as a binder. Employers must make a copy of the binder available at every location where the summary poster is exhibited. Furthermore, the law requires employers to update the binder at least monthly to make sure that information is accurate, up-to-date, and matches the information that is on the website of the Mayor’s Office. Significantly, the D.C. government can impose upon employers a fine of $100.00 for each day that an employer fails to comply with the binder and posting requirements.

Takeaways

The Act has important consequences for employers in the District of Columbia, which can be found in the rest of the article on our website: https://www.lerchearly.com/news/dc-enacts-new-law-requiring-sexual-harassment-training-by-employers-of-tipped-employees.

For more information, contact Marc at mrengel@lerchearly.com or Nida at nkanwal@lerchearly.com.

Are DMV Employers Required to Give Employees Time Off to Vote? It Depends.

Josh SchmandJosh Schmand

With Election Day around the corner on November 3, 2020, and early voting ongoing, employees may need time off from work to vote.

Federal law does not require employers to give employees time off from work to vote, but the local jurisdictions have varying voting leave requirements. Here’s what employers need to know about giving employees time off to vote in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia:

Time Off to Vote in D.C.

On April 27, 2020, the District of Columbia enacted the Leave to Vote Amendment Act of 2020, which went into effect on October 1, 2020, just in time for the 2020 election season. The Act gives all D.C. employees the right to at least two hours of paid leave off to vote.

This means that paid voting leave is only available to employees who are voting in person. The leave can be used for either an election held in the District if the employee is eligible to vote in the District or in an election held in the jurisdiction (such as Maryland or Virginia) in which the employee is eligible to vote.

Employers may ask employees to submit the request for paid leave a reasonable time in advance of the date the employee plans to vote and to specify the hours during which employees can take paid leave to vote, including requiring employees to vote early instead of on Election Day or to vote at the beginning or the end of a shift. Employers may not interfere with, restrain, or deny any attempt employees make to take paid leave to vote under the Leave to Vote Act or retaliate against employees for taking paid leave to vote.

The Leave to Vote Act requires employers to post notice of the voting leave requirements in a conspicuous location and on their websites. A notice suitable for posting in the workplace can be found here.

Voting Leave in Maryland

Every employer in Maryland must allow employees at least two hours of paid leave off to vote on Election Day in order to cast a ballot. Like in D.C., this means that paid voting leave is only available to employees who are voting in person.

All employees in Maryland are eligible for paid voting leave if they claim to be registered voters in Maryland and if they do not have two hours of continuous off-duty time during the time that the polls are open. Employees are not eligible for paid voting leave if they have two consecutive nonworking hours while the polls are open.

Employers may require that employees provide written proof that they voted or attempted to vote. The paid voting leave law does not specify whether employers may designate the hours during which employees may take paid leave to vote. The law also does not specify any obligations for employers to inform employees of their right to paid voting leave.

Election Officer Leave in Virginia

Virginia does not have voting leave laws requiring time off (paid or unpaid) for employees to vote.

However, Virginia employers should be aware that they are obligated to provide election officer leave. An election officer is a person appointed by an electoral board to serve at a polling place for any election.

Requests for election officer leave must be made reasonably in advance of Election Day, and the leave does not need to be paid. Employees that serve four or more hours (including travel time) as election officers on Election Day cannot be required to start a shift on or after 5 p.m. that day or before 3 a.m. the day after service.

Voting Leave Policies

The voting leave requirements outlined above are the minimums required by applicable laws, and employers, even those in Virginia, can always amend their policies to provide additional paid voting leave as necessary. Employers should review all requests for voting leave consistent with established policies and applicable laws.

At a minimum, employers should review and modify their leave policies now to ensure compliance with the amended D.C. Leave to Vote Act and to provide employees with their required voting leave.

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

Business Interruption Insurance

To Claim or Not to Claim?

Lauri ClearyLauri Cleary

Now that we are several months into the COVID-19 experience, most businesses have suffered some type of interruption, and many have suffered appreciable income loss.

The latter group may have considered submitting lost income claims on their business insurance policies. Those with offices, warehouses or any other physical premises (and many with only a virtual presence) likely have an all risk “CGL” (commercial general liability) insurance policy. These policies work by process of elimination or “exclusion” rather than “inclusion,” covering more than a narrow group of selected risks by covering any and all risks not expressly excluded–either by a narrow definition of the injury or loss that triggers coverage or express exclusion of certain causes of loss. They are “all risk” in that they insure against covered risks for covered losses.

Claims inquiries to many agents and brokers are met with the pessimistic advice that there likely is no coverage and will be no payout for COVID-19 losses. Many have been counseled not to bother submitting a claim. Given the new burdens the pandemic has placed on businesses trying simply to function, the temptation to forego an exercise in futility is understandably strong. But it should be resisted, and here’s why.

The Case for Making the Claim

As courts and legislatures begin to see and address claim denials, rays of hope are piercing the darkness.

First, and as always, a basic legal principle requires that insurance policies be interpreted in favor of the insured business and against the insurer, whose policy language is at issue. Initial court cases have begun to expose weak spots in the policy language armor insurers donned starting in 2008, after outbreaks of SARS and H1N1 inspired global pandemic fears. Before then, few businesses other than medical or biotech firms had policies excluding bacterial or viral diseases, as those risks were only addressed when they were inherent in the insured’s business.

Once hotel chains racked up huge SARS losses, and their insurers suffered huge verdicts, exclusions were rushed into policies for all businesses. But these exclusions, like all policy language, are narrowly interpreted against the insurer. Exclusions for “bacteria,” “virus,” “viral pandemic,” and other communicable disease sources are not interchangeable: a bacteria exclusion will not cover COVID-19 or any other virus (and vice versa), to justify denial for lack of a “covered cause of loss.”

Another ready refuge for insurers seeking to deny coverage is found in policy definitions of “covered loss.” That language, too, is under strict scrutiny in the courts. The issue is whether there must be physical damage or harm to property owned or rented by the business (or, in contingent income loss policies, to property of a customer or supplier or venue that draws customers to the business); and, if so, what constitutes “damage” or “harm” that may cause a “covered loss.”

Interpreting COVID-19

While courts in the past have interpreted policies to require a permanent structural change to physical property, the COVID-19 issue is whether contamination that does not effect a structural change, but adds a patina of toxicity, might be sufficient. There are apt analogies to be drawn from cases finding coverage for accidental chemical releases requiring decontamination to support an argument that property damage occurs wherever COVID-19 is present. Again, the policy language is paramount, and those providing coverage for “loss” may be broadly interpreted to include “loss of use” rather than only “damage” or “harm” to property.

Policies that interchange these words in other coverage parts may be interpreted against the insurers who argue a more limited meaning in policies that do not contain express exclusions of losses caused by viral pandemics or governmental shutdown orders. A recent D.C. Superior Court, case now headed to the D.C. Court of Appeals, demonstrates this well (Rose’s 1, LLC, et al. v. Erie Insurance Exchange, D.C. Superior Court, August 6, 2020).

In addition, since the onset of COVID-19 in March, state legislatures anticipating coverage denials in 10 states and the District of Columbia have been exploring ways to expand coverage under policies that otherwise would provide none. Most legislative measures would not simply declare coverage to exist where it did not otherwise. Rather, they would require insurers to offer such coverage for an additional premium. This approach balances the insureds’ need with concerns that the insurance industry not be bankrupted by COVID-19 loss payouts.

If nothing else, the judicial and legislative indications strongly support taking the time to submit a lost income claim under any policy that arguably affords any type of business interruption or lost income coverage, however limited.

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

CDC Updates Definition of “Close Contact” as it Relates to COVID-19

Employers Should Consider Taking Several Steps

Marc EngelMarc Engel

On October 21, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its definition of “close contact” for purposes of determining whether employees have been exposed to COVID-19.  The CDC now defines Close Contact as follows:

Someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period* starting from 2 days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to test specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated.

* Individual exposures added together over a 24-hour period (e.g., three 5-minute exposures for a total of 15 minutes). Data are limited, making it difficult to precisely define “close contact;” however, 15 cumulative minutes of exposure at a distance of 6 feet or less can be used as an operational definition for contact investigation. Factors to consider when defining close contact include proximity (closer distance likely increases exposure risk), the duration of exposure (longer exposure time likely increases exposure risk), whether the infected individual has symptoms (the period around onset of symptoms is associated with the highest levels of viral shedding), if the infected person was likely to generate respiratory aerosols (e.g., was coughing, singing, shouting), and other environmental factors (crowding, adequacy of ventilation, whether exposure was indoors or outdoors). Because the general public has not received training on proper selection and use of respiratory PPE, such as an N95, the determination of close contact should generally be made irrespective of whether the contact was wearing respiratory PPE.  At this time, differential determination of close contact for those using fabric face coverings is not recommended.

The decision by the CDC to update the definition of “close contact” is likely to, among other things, make contact tracing even more challenging for employers.

To learn about steps employers should consider taking, read the rest of the article on our website: https://www.lerchearly.com/news/cdc-updates-definition-of-close-contact-as-it-relates-to-covid-19.

For more information, contact Marc at 301-657-0184 or mrengel@lerchearly.com.