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Virginia Workers Could Get New Pandemic Protections

Northam wearing masks talks to people at testing site
Gov. Ralph Northam visits a community testing site (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Labor groups say Virginia is on track to become the first state in the U.S. to create comprehensive workplace safety rules related to COVID-19.

The action comes as the federal government has issued recommendations that labor groups argue lack teeth and that business interests largely say are sufficient.

Gov. Ralph Northam  proposed the regulations, which will be enforced with fines, after outbreaks in Virginia’s poultry industry, changing direction after initially referring workers to the existing complaint process.

Under the  draft rules, employers have to create policies for employees exhibiting COVID-esque symptoms and keep them away from their job sites if they test positive. Employers would have to tell their staff if a colleague they came into contact with gets sick and couldn’t retaliate against them for reporting problems.

Workers would be divided into categories based on the level of risk, ranging from high-risk sites like morticians to the lowest-risk workers, like those whose telecommute.

Companies could be fined $13,000 per offense and up to $130,000 for “willful and repeat” offenses.

The Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board is set for a final vote on the regulations on a to-be-determined date early next week.

In the meantime, over 500 workers have filed complaints regarding COVID-19 in the workplace with Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industry since the pandemic began. Roughly 3,500 employers reported employees with coronavirus-related illnesses via the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission through the end of May, according to representatives of the agencies.

Sara Jacobson, a Northern Virginia organizer with Unite Here, which represents workers in the hotel and foodservice industries, said the new rules are overdue.

“I don’t think that re-opening and returning to work should be a death sentence,” Jacobson said, noting that existing regulations often protected customers rather than workers.

Jason Yarashes, who heads the Legal Aid Justice Center’s work with immigrants and farmworkers, said the regulations were a welcome step from a state known for friendliness to business. But he said it always represented a failure of the federal government to take action.

“By only issuing guidelines, they’re leaving it to states to step in and fill the void,” he said.

Business groups and  some Republican lawmakers said the rules are expensive and unnecessary. They say existing federal and state recommendations -- which don’t come with fines -- are good enough.

In comments submitted to the board, Nicole Riley, Virginia director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said that the current approach is working.

“Mandatory one-size-fits-all standards such as the ones proposed to the Board could harm workers,” Riley wrote. “It could quickly become outdated and constrain employers from pursuing the adaptable, innovative, data-driven, and effective approach to protecting worker health and safety that is proving crucial during this pandemic.”

Employers would have to create an Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response Plan -- a concern for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which said few small businesses were equipped to create that document.

In its briefing  report to the board, however, staff at Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industry noted the pandemic posed a “grave danger” to workers.

“It is well documented that employers will be confronted with employees who work despite being symptomatic for fear of job loss, and customers who will refuse to observe physical distancing or face covering requirements, even in the face of Governor’s executive orders,” the report says.

The emergency regulations are set to expire six months after they are put into place unless they are either repealed or replaced by permanent rules.

Editor's Note:  This story originally stated that Virginia could become the first state in the country to fine employers for violating COVID-19 safety rules. That was incorrect and the story has since been corrected.


Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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