About a year into the pandemic, the California Labor Commissioner recently imposed fines on a Los Angeles fast food franchisee. In doing so, the commissioner determined that the franchisee fired four employees after the employees reported they feared exposure to COVID-19 due to unsafe working conditions. According to a press release, before their terminations, the employees reported their concerns to their employer and to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health and the Los Angeles County Health Department. The employees had also participated in strikes related to the safety of their working conditions at the franchisee, and claimed that they were fired shortly after those strikes.
The California Labor Commissioner's office reported that it issued citations totaling $126,913 in wages and penalties against the franchisee. Those citations also named the franchisee's individual owners, along with the franchisee's human resources officer as jointly and severally liable. The citations include over $45,000 in lost wages and interest, and $80,000 in retaliation penalties under California labor law. The franchisee was also ordered to reinstate the four employees, to remove any negative references from their personnel files, and to post information about the citations and violations inside the workplace.
As we have written about here and here, California, like many states, has implemented strong worker protection rules in response to the pandemic. In September 2020, the California legislature passed A.B. 685, which imposes stricter COVID-19 reporting standards for employers than the current federal government guidelines (including the requirement that employers notify potentially infected workers within one business day of their potential workplace exposure). A.B. 685 also requires employers to have a disinfection safety plan on hand in case of multiple infections in the same workplace. Also passed in September of 2020, A.B. 1867 requires employers with 500 or more California employees to provide supplemental paid sick leave to each worker who contracts COVID-19 if such employee cannot work remotely. Finally, S.B. 1159, another recently passed law, creates a legal presumption that an employee who contracts COVID-19 suffered an occupational injury that qualifies the employee for workers' compensation benefits.
Although there looks to be a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, employers should keep abreast of the legal requirements in places where they operate and consult with trusted legal counsel should any compliance questions arise.
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