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.

Virginia Is First Again: COVID-19 Workplace Safety Rule Becomes Permanent

Josh SchmandJosh Schmand

This past summer, Virginia became the first state to pass mandatory workplace standards for employers to control, prevent, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 to and among employees and employers. Those emergency workplace safety standards were temporary and were set to expire later this month, on January 26, 2021. With the expiration date fast approaching, on January 13, 2021, the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board enacted a new rule, effective January 27, 2021, extending the protections permanently. This new permanent rule, like the temporary emergency one, is the first of its kind in the country.

The requirements in the new permanent rule are mostly the same as before, and you can read more about those safety standards for different jobs (which are based on risk level of exposure), physical distancing mandates, reporting obligations, return to work procedures, training requirements, infectious disease preparedness and response plans, and penalties here and here. Two key changes in the new rule that are worth highlighting deal with employer reporting obligations and return to work procedures:

  • For reporting, previously, the emergency temporary rule required employers to contact the Virginia Department of Health within 24 hours of the discovery of a positive case of COVID-19. In the new permanent rule, the notification requirement was changed so that now employers only need to contact the Virginia Department of Health when their worksite has had two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 of their own employees present at the place of employment within a 14-day period who have tested positive for COVID-19 during that period.
  • For returning to work, previously, the emergency temporary rule allowed for employees who were known or suspected to be infected with COVID-19 to return to work after 10 days from when the symptoms first appeared or after they received two consecutive negative tests. In the new permanent rule, the testing based strategy for returning to work was eliminated, and only the symptoms based strategy remained. Specifically, symptomatic employees known or suspected to be infected with COVID-19 cannot return to work until the following three conditions have been met: (1) being fever-free (less than 100.0° F) for at least 24 hours, without the use of fever-reducing medications; (2) improvement of respiratory symptoms, such as cough and shortness of breath; and (3) 10 days have passed since the symptoms first appeared. And, employees known to be infected with COVID-19 who never develop signs or symptoms are excluded from returning to work until 10 days after the date of their first positive RT-PCR test.

Despite significant opposition to the new permanent rule, ultimately the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board determined that the continuation of the workplace safety standards were still needed to prevent further COVID-19 outbreaks, including among workers who will choose not to be vaccinated once they are eligible. A discussion on employers considering mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies can be found here.

While the new Rule is “permanent,” within 14 days after Governor Ralph Northam declares an end to the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 State of Emergency, the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board will have to notice a meeting (not actually have the meeting) to determine whether there is a continued need for the workplace safety standards.

Since Virginia’s workplace safety standards are not going anywhere soon, employers who have not already done so need to develop policies and procedures for employees to report COVID-19 symptoms and subsequently return to work, as well as implement training presentations and written infectious disease preparedness and response plan. And for those employers who previously brought their policies, practices, and procedures into compliance with the emergency temporary requirements, they now have to review and revise them to ensure compliance with the new rule.

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