On May 11, 2021, Governor Inslee signed into law the Health Emergency Labor Standards Act. The Act revises the state’s workers’ compensation and industrial health and safety statutes to provide new protections for high risk and frontline workers during any public health emergency, including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As a result, the additional protections under the law are effective immediately (subject to additional regulations and guidance to be issued by L&I) and stay in effect until the current state-of-emergency is lifted. The protections then automatically become effective again whenever there is another public health emergency.
Under the Act, during any public health emergency, there is now a rebuttable presumption that any “frontline” worker who contracts the specific infectious disease was exposed to the disease while working for the employer such that the illness is covered by workers’ compensation insurance. “Frontline” workers include teachers, daycare providers, first responders, and employees of retail establishments. The employer can rebut the presumption of coverage by showing that the employee contracted the illness outside of work or had been away from the workplace for the requisite quarantine period.
The Act also codifies specific protections already in place under an emergency Governor’s Proclamation for high risk workers. Specifically, the Act prohibits employers from discharging, permanently replacing, or discriminating against any worker who is at high risk of contracting the specific disease for seeking accommodations or using leave options to reduce their exposure to the disease during the public health emergency.
Lastly, the Act imposes on employers certain notice and reporting requirements associated with the infectious or contagious disease that is the subject of the public health emergency. Specifically, under the Act, employers who have 50 or more employees must report to L&I within 24 hours after confirming 10 or more positive cases in the workplace. L&I is currently developing guidance on what information specifically employers must report, although employers must not disclose employee names or personally identifying information. Additionally, the Act requires employers to notify individuals of a potential exposure in the workplace within one business day of learning that an employee contracted the disease, tested positive, or was exposed to the disease in the workplace.
Employers will need to understand their new reporting and notification obligations under the law and be aware of the rebuttable presumption for workers’ compensation coverage.