Virginia becomes first state to adopt COVID-19 worker safety rules

Virginia becomes first state to adopt COVID-19 worker safety rules

Virginia has adopted the nation’s first COVID-19 workplace safety regulations.

On a 9-2 vote Wednesday, the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s Safety and Health Code Board approved emergency regulations requiring employers to enforce social distancing measures and face coverings for employees who interact with customers, as well as setting guidelines for testing workers for the novel coronavirus.

In May, Gov. Ralph Northam directed the state labor department to adopt emergency regulations, and the task has taken on new urgency as Virginia moves into phase three of Northam’s reopening plans. States that have moved quickly to reopen have seen spikes in coronavirus cases that have strained their health care capacity.

COVID-19 has killed nearly 2,000 Virginians and sickened more than 73,000, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Under the new workplace rules, employers must notify employees within 24 hours if a coworker tests positive for the virus. And, employees who are known or suspected to be positive for COVID-19 cannot return to work for 10 days, or until they receive two consecutive negative tests. Businesses can face significant fines for breaking the rules.

Workers would be protected as whistleblowers if they were to report violations, including on social media posts.

Companies could face fines from a few thousand dollars to as much as $13,000 per violation. “Willful” and serious violations could result in fines as much as $130,000.

“Workers should not have to sacrifice their health and safety to earn a living, especially not during a pandemic,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement on Wednesday. “In the face of federal inaction, Virginia has stepped up to protect workers from COVID-19, creating the nation’s first enforceable workplace safety requirements.”

“Keeping Virginians safe at work is not only a critical part of stopping the spread of this virus, it’s key to our economic recovery and it’s the right thing to do,” Northam said.

Virginia’s rules will go into effect after being published in a newspaper in Richmond, which state officials said they plan to do the week of July 27. The rules will last for at least six months.

Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industry developed the regulations in late May under Northam’s direction.

The state’s Safety and Health Codes Board held four lengthy meetings over several weeks to discuss and amend the rules.

But business groups have objected that the meetings, which were held online, did not provide sufficient opportunity for public comment.

The new rules were backed by labor organizations and worker advocates, who say enforceable regulations are necessary to protect essential workers.

“The federal government only issued guidelines and recommendations through the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” said Jason B. Yarashes, an attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center, an organization that supported the regulations. “There were not any enforceable protections on the books related to COVID.”

“What Virginia did today was to step in and fill that void where the federal government was not protecting workers,” Yarashes said. “Virginia created a blueprint for other states across the South and the nation to get on the right track during this pandemic.”

Opposing the new regulations was a coalition of business and industry groups, including the National Federal of Independent Businesses, the Virginia Manufacturers Association and the Virginia Retail Federation.

The business groups said the regulations are unnecessary because many businesses across the state already have adopted safety policies based on guidelines from the CDC. The new rules, the groups say, would impose costly burdens on businesses.

Brett Vassey, president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, said businesses were not given sufficient opportunity to comment on the new regulations.

He said the rules are being thrust upon businesses after most already have taken steps over several months to mitigate COVID-19 exposure.

“There are going to be a lot of businesses caught by surprise,” Vassey said, adding that about 300,000 businesses in Virginia will have to take steps to be in compliance with the regulations.

“The idea that everybody is going to be in compliance is going to be a farce,” he said.

Nicole Riley, the Virginia director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the regulations would hurt Virginia’s economic recovery.

Vassey and Riley said the regulations would require businesses to implement new employee training programs. Those will be difficult and costly to implement in the time frame set out by the regulations, Riley said.

The new rules come amid a federal fight over workplace safety mandates as Congress gears up for a debate on a new COVID-19 relief package.

Northam’s executive order requiring most people 10 years of age and older to wear masks in stores and other buildings open to the public remains in effect, but with spotty compliance.

The health department is charged with enforcing the mask rule and received about 3,000 mask violation complaints in May and June, according to agency figures.

Since February, the state labor department has fielded more than 500 complaints filed by employees against employers over a range of COVID-19 concerns, from lack of personal protective equipment to sanitation, according to agency spokeswoman Jennifer Rose.

About a dozen of those complaints have led to open investigations, according to Jane Daffon of the labor department.

Worker compensation claims and worker deaths are also up in Virginia, according to a report issued to the state’s safety and health board last month.

The emergency workplace standards will remain in effect for six months, according to a governor’s office news release.

They can be made permanent through the process defined in state law.

Virginia is one of more than 20 states with authority to run its own occupational safety and health program and may promulgate regulations stricter than those set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Under the Trump administration, OSHA has adopted no standards for coronavirus workplace protections.

From SWVA Today.