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New California rules end distinction for vaccinated workers

Virus Outbreak California Workplaces
Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press
FILE - A worker wears a mask while preparing desserts at the Universal City Walk Friday, May 14, 2021, in Universal City, Calif. Workplace regulators are poised on Thursday, Dec. 16 to extend California’s coronavirus pandemic regulations into next year with some revisions that business groups say could worsen the labor shortage.

California workplace regulators on Thursday extended the state's coronavirus pandemic regulations into next year with some revisions that business groups say could worsen the labor shortage.

The main change to the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board's revised temporary rule erases current distinctions between vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.

Both will be prohibited from the workplace if they come in close contact with someone infected with the virus under the rules that will be in effect from Jan. 14 through April 14.


The revised temporary rules require that exposed, vaccinated but asymptomatic workers stay home for 14 days even if they test negative or, if they return to work, to wear masks and stay 6 feet (1.8 meters) from others for two weeks.

The seven-member safety board is the policy-making arm of what is known as Cal/OSHA. It adopted the revised rules without discussion on a 6-1 vote, with only management representative Kate Crawford opposed.

The California Chamber of Commerce opposed the revisions, said Rob Moutrie, a policy advocate for the group.

“Treating vaccinated and unvaccinated people similarly really denies the scientific value of the vaccine and disincentivizes vaccination,” he said.

But groups representing workers support the change. Regulators were foolish to loosen the restrictions in June under pressure from employers and are smart to tighten them now, said Mitch Steiger, a legislative advocate for the California Labor Federation.


“It’s good that we’re realizing that vaccines aren’t the silver bullet to get us out of this,” Steiger said. “There’s never a good time to start disarming against COVID-19.”

The safety board’s adoption of the revised rules comes a day after California reinstituted requiring vaccinated and unvaccinated people to wear masks indoors in a bid to slow the spread of the virus, including the omicron variant, as families and friends gather for the holidays and new coronavirus cases increase.

The proposed California workplace rule changes recognize "the science that vaccinated people can transmit the virus, and early reports show that to be especially true with omicron,” said Saskia Kim, speaking for the California Nurses Association.

Under the state's current workplace rules, vaccinated employees can keep working even if they've been exposed, unless they show symptoms, under the assumption that the vaccine generally will protect them.

Other states besides California that adopted emergency COVID-19 workplace safety measures include Michigan, Oregon and Virginia.

The Biden Administration has ordered all U.S. employers with more than 100 workers to be vaccinated, tested regularly or wear masks at work starting Jan. 4. But the order is stalled amid court challenges from Republican-led states and fears among employers that the rules could make the worker shortage worse.

The California Chamber of Commerce led a coalition of about 60 business groups arguing in a letter to the state safety board that vaccinations are still largely effective and usually prevent serious illness and death even if there are breakthrough infections.

The new rules that require testing even of vaccinated workers with no symptoms could also strain the availability of rapid tests and boost employers’ costs, said the groups, which include agribusiness, retailers, homebuilders, restaurateurs and manufacturers, along with cities and counties.

The stricter safeguards “will only worsen the present labor shortage affecting California workplaces,” Moutrie predicted. “Moreover, reinstituting social distancing on a per person basis is just not feasible in many work places” that would have to physically move workstations or equipment.

The rules apply to almost every workplace in the state, including offices, factories and retail locations.

Motion Picture Association of America vice president and senior counsel Melissa Patack told the board that the rules aren’t feasible for the filming movies, television shows or commercials because “actors cannot wear masks while performing.”

She added that workers doing hair and makeup for actors cannot stay six feet (1.8 meters) apart, adding that proposed rules “could result in the shutdown of many productions.”

The safety board conformed its current regulations to general statewide standards imposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in June only after weeks of intrigue during which it first postponed, then rejected, then adopted, then rescinded earlier proposed rules that would have conflicted with Newsom’s broader directive.

Labor interests generally haven't objected to the latest changes.

But they are upset that other proposed rules to be considered in March would eliminate employer-paid sick leave for employees who are exposed to or contract the virus.

The goal was to allow lower-wage workers without sick time to take time off rather than coming to work and spreading the virus because they couldn't afford to stay home.

If the proposed elimination stands, “workers will be forced to make the impossible decision of going to work while sick or staying home without pay," Stephen Knight, executive director of the labor advocacy group WorkSafe said in an online petition to the Cal/OSHA Standards Board.

Labor advocates could also work through the state budget process, Legislature and governor to keep the program, but prefer to retain the existing requirement, Knight and Steiger said.

The board on Thursday was also hosting a panel discussion on how it should handle future pandemic regulations, prompted by a proposal last month by the Western Steel Council.

The council suggested in a letter to the board that the whole regulatory process has become so complicated and the pandemic so ever-changing that the board should stop trying to set its own workplace rules.

The council said it would be better for the board to simply instruct businesses to follow the California Department of Public Health’s evolving guidelines.

Updated: December 16, 2021 at 1:58 PM PST