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.

COVID-19 in the Workplace – Employer Recording and Reporting Requirements

Employers may have obligations to record and report cases of COVID-19 in the workplace.

Nida KanwalNida Kanwal

Recording Requirement

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) revised enforcement memorandum provides that under OSHA’s recordkeeping requirements, COVID-19 is a recordable illness, and thus employers are responsible for recording cases of COVID-19, if:

  1. The case is a confirmed case of COVID-19;
  2. The case is work-related*; and
  3. The case involves one or more general recording criteria*.

*An illness is work-related if an event or exposure in the work environment either causes or contributes to a condition or significantly aggravates a pre-existing illness. This is presumed for illnesses or injuries resulting from events or exposures occurring in the work environment unless one of the narrow exceptions in federal regulations apply.

*The general recording criteria includes conditions in which the illness or injury results in either: death, absences from work, restricted work or transfer to another position, medical treatment (beyond first aid), or loss of consciousness. If one of these conditions is not met, an employer must also consider a case to meet the general recording criteria if it involves a significant illness or injury diagnosed by a physician or other licensed health care professional.

There are three forms for employers to fill out under the recording requirement—this includes an injury and illness incident report (Form 301), a log (Form 300), and a summary (Form 300A).

Notably, OSHA has indicated that it is exercising enforcement discretion regarding work-relatedness in the context of employee COVID-19 illness. OSHA acknowledges that because of the “nature of the disease and ubiquity of community spread, in many instances it remains difficult to determine whether a COVID illness is work-related, especially when an employee has experienced potential exposure both in and out of the workplace.” Therefore, recording a COVID-19 illness does not necessarily mean that the employer violated an OSHA standard.

Additionally, pursuant to existing regulations, employers with 10 or less employees as well as employers in low hazard industries do not have recording obligations; instead, they are only required to report work-related COVID-19 illnesses that result in a fatality or an employee’s in-patient hospitalization, amputation, or loss of an eye. A complete list of the industries which are exempt from OSHA’s recording requirements can be found here.

Importantly, as stated above, even if an employer is exempt from OSHA’s recording requirements it must still determine work-relatedness for purposes of OSHA’s reporting requirements for any employees who received in-patient hospitalization treatment due to COVID-19.

Additional Guidance

In determining whether an employer has complied with this obligation and made a reasonable good faith determination of work-relatedness, Compliance Safety and Health Officers (CSHO) should apply the following considerations:

  • The reasonableness of the investigation. Employers are not required to undertake extensive medical inquiries. It is typically sufficient for an employer to use the following steps when learning of an employee’s COVID-19 illness: (1) ask the employee how he believes he contracted COVID-19; (2) ask the employee about his activities in and out of work that may have led to the COVID-19 illness (while being mindful of employee privacy); and (3) review the his work environment for potential exposure (taking into consideration other employees who contracted the illness in that environment).
  • The evidence available. Evidence of work-relatedness includes what was reasonably available to the employer at the time it made its work-relatedness determination. If the employer later learns additional information, then that information should be considered to determine whether the employer made a reasonable work-relatedness determination.
  • The evidence that COVID-19 was contracted at work. Certain evidence makes it more or less likely that the illness work-relatedness. For example:
    • More likely work-related when several cases develop among workers who work closely together and there is no other explanation.
    • More likely work-related when the employee contracted the illness after close contact with a customer or colleague who had a confirmed case of COVID-19 and there is no other explanation.
    • More likely work-related when an employee’s position involves close contact with members of the general public in a locality with ongoing community transmission and there is no other explanation.
    • Not likely work-related if employee is the only one to contract the illness in his work area and his position does not involve close contact with the general public, regardless of the rate of community spread.
    • Not likely work-related if, outside of the workplace, the employee was exposed to COVID-19.
    • CSHOs are also advised to give consideration to evidence of causation from medical providers, public health authorities, or the employee himself.

After the inquiry, if an employer cannot determine whether it is more likely than not that an exposure in the workplace played a causal role in a case of COVID-19, then the employer does not need to record that illness.

Reporting Requirements

Once employers determine whether COVID cases are work-related, employers must report any incidents of in-patient hospitalization treatment (as opposed to only observation or testing) which occurred within 24 hours of the exposure at work. See OSHA’s FAQ.

Employers may report COVID-19 related fatalities or in-patient hospitalization by calling the nearest OSHA office, calling the OSHA 24-hour hotline at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), or by online submission. There may also be additional reporting requirements under state or local law.

For more information, contact Nida at 301-657-0744 or nkanwal@lerchearly.com.