Workers COVID-19 Eastern Shore

A car at an April 27 rally on the Eastern Shore in support of protecting poultry processing plant workers from COVID-19. 

Virginia workplace safety regulators are proposing emergency COVID-19 rules for businesses that would make social distancing mandatory and require employers to notify their employees within 24 hours if a coworker tests positive for the virus.

The proposed rules, published Friday and scheduled to go before the state Safety and Health Codes Board on June 24, represent the state’s first step toward implementing across-the-board safety regulations for employers and employees in response to the virus.

“With enforceable regulations, workers will feel more empowered to speak out for their safety in the workplace, particularly during COVID when essential workers are risking their lives to keep the economy alive and feed their families,” Jason Yarashes, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, which had petitioned  for regulations governing poultry plants. The move prompted Gov. Ralph Northam to ask labor officials to develop the more far-reaching rules now under consideration.

In addition to addressing social distancing and notification of positive cases in a workplace — two common employee complaints — the rules also lay out sanitation requirements and set a timetable for when employees can return to work after testing positive or displaying symptoms. They also bar retaliation against employees who report safety concerns.

The rules lay out more stringent regulations for workplaces and jobs deemed high risk or medium risk. The rules define high-risk workplaces as settings, generally health care, in which employers expect workers will come in contact with people known or suspected of having COVID-19. Medium-risk jobs are defined as those that require “more than minimal occupational contact inside six feet with other employees… or the general public,” including poultry and meat processing, agricultural and hand labor, transportation, educational settings, restaurants, grocery stores, correctional facilities, gyms and spas.

In both, employers would be required to screen employees for COVID-19 symptoms before the beginning of every shift, erect physical barriers to separate people when possible and use alternative work arrangements such as teleworking if practical.

The rules also lay out requirements for employers to provide personal protective equipment such as masks and respirators to their employees, though it’s not immediately clear how regulators would expect them to be used in settings like grocery stores or meat plants.

“Those regulations do provide employers with some flexibility, so it is not always one size fits all,” said Jay Withrow, an attorney with the state Department of Labor and Industry. “We are working on an FAQ document that will be posted [this week] and then expanded as we get more questions.”

The maximum penalty for violating the rules would by $13,000, but “willful and repeat” violations could result in fines up to $130,000.

Until last month, the state had resolved the complaints it deemed valid – 427 as of the beginning of June – exclusively through informal “phone/fax investigations,” in which inspectors forwarded employee complaints to employers and asked them to provide documentation showing they’d addressed the unsafe conditions.

The safety board is accepting comments online through Monday, June 22. As of Wednesday morning, only four had been submitted— two supporting the regulations and two opposing them.  

This story originally appeared in the Virginia Mercury.

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