On June 24, Virginia became the first state in the country to implement workplace health and safety rules to protect workers from coronavirus infections. Could Illinois be next? Whatever happens, these actions should serve as an example of what every business should do.
Virginia’s health and safety board agreed to create finalized rules after the state’s Department of Labor and Industry drafted an emergency temporary standard in late May. The office of Governor Ralph Northam said the idea arose because the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has received more than 4,000 complaints related to coronavirus but only issued one citation, according to the Washington Post.
The Virginia standard, which the board will approve or amend, requires that businesses:
- Draw up policies for employees with symptoms indicating COVID-19
- Prohibit those suspected of being COVID-positive from coming to work
- Notify other employees within 24 hours of possible infections
- Develop and enforce procedures to ensure social distancing, sanitation and disinfection, and hand-washing
- Not retaliate against employees who wear masks or other protective equipment, voice concerns about workplace safety, or talk publicly about those concerns to the news media or government agencies
Business and industry groups have said the regulations are overkill given that state and federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) already had promulgated guidelines. “It sets up a lot of bureaucratic red tape for business owners to comply with, when they’re already struggling with how to keep up their business and keep their employees employed,” Nicole Riley, Virginia director for the National Federation of Independent Business, told the Post.
But unions and workers say those are only recommendations—while the regulations will have teeth in the form of fines up to $124,000 and possible closure of businesses in particularly out of control situations. The rules sprung partially from a petition by the Legal Aid Justice Center, based on the concerns of poultry workers, more than 350 of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.
“We’re hearing from workers that there was an insufficient response—late safety protocols, no social distancing,” Jason B. Yarashes, lead attorney at the Project for Farm and Immigrant Workers, an arm of the justice center, told the Post. “Defensive stances from plants saying that they’re doing things.” The Virginia Poultry Federation thinks otherwise and believes existing guidelines from the CDC and OSHA are all that’s needed.
Megan Healy, chief workforce development adviser for Governor Northram, said the state had fielded thousands of complaints from workers in various industries alleging their employers hadn’t closed and disinfected work sites thoroughly after co-workers fell ill, or that their employers had discouraged them from getting COVID-19 tests.
All in all, labor advocates are happy with the approach, although some wish the rules contained mandates for changes like plastic face shields or Plexiglas between workstations. And they’re concerned that even if other states take similar approaches, there could end up being a “race to the bottom” in terms of worker safety as businesses advocate for fewer regulations.
These labor advocates say the optimal situation would be nationwide regulations from OSHA. But OSHA says that its guidelines are sufficient to protect workers. Time will tell whether the Illinois state government agrees. As Chicago area experience business lawyers, we recommend that every business owner review their employment polices to create best practices for their employees.