Agricultural Employers Challenge Cal OSHA’s Emergency Temporary Standard on COVID-19 Prevention
Among the many requirements in the new ETS, Cal OSHA imposed a performance-based obligation on employers to establish and implement an effective COVID-19 Prevention Program, COVID-19 preventive measures (e.g., social distancing and mandatory use of face coverings), and COVID-19 case management (e.g., investigation, recording, and reporting). In establishing these requirements, the ETS also published prescriptive written COVID-19 Prevention Program components and procedures for handling COVID-19 cases, as well as steps to regulate multiple infections and presumed outbreaks at the workplace that are already subject to substantial state and local health department requirements. Moreover, the ETS substantially departs from other health and safety regulations by compelling worker exclusion following a potential workplace exposure to COVID-19, mandating exclusion pay in limited circumstances, and that employees be provided COVID-19 testing. The ETS further imposes potential liability on employers if they fail to comply with the various requirements.
The ETS has created confusion and frustration among California employers already facing a multitude of federal, state, and local COVID-19 requirements, which are in a constant state of flux. The ETS also attempts to impose requirements that are administered by other responsible agencies and authorities, making employers’ obligations unclear and duplicative. For example, the ETS imposes an obligation on employers to notify state and local health departments of multiple COVID-19 cases despite this obligation already being imposed on employers under AB 685, guidance from the state health department, and standing health department orders.
Cal OSHA’s ETS also uses inconsistent language to discuss requirements (e.g., “offer” vs. “provide” in the context of required testing), imprecise language, and imposes obligations that do not make sense from either a technical or feasibility standpoint. For instance, the ETS defines a “COVID-19 test” as one that is (i) approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) or has an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA, and (ii) is administered in accordance with the FDA approval or Emergency Use Authorization. In doing so, Cal OSHA fails to take into account that COVID-19 tests can be approved for use under other regulatory pathways and that many COVID-19 tests on the market are not approved by FDA or under an Emergency Use Authorization. Restricting testing in this way also unnecessarily complicates an already complicated requirement and makes compliance more difficult, costly, and time-intensive.
Despite numerous concerns raised in public meetings and written responses to the ETS, Cal OSHA also has not provided sufficient guidance on how to comply with the ETS, leaving many obligations on testing, worker exclusion, and COVID-19 case management unclear. Cal OSHA only just recently provided the public updated FAQs but still left numerous questions and ambiguities.
In response to the ETS’ ambiguities and overwhelming compliance burden, the Western Growers Association, the California Business Roundtable, the California Association of Winegrape Growers, the California Farm Bureau Federation, Ventura County Agricultural Association, and the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California joined together to file a lawsuit against Cal OSHA and related entities and individuals over the ETS before the Los Angeles Superior Court. The lawsuit contends that the Board violated employers’ due process rights and the state’s administrative procedure laws by failing to provide clear and adequate notice of the link between the ETS and the emergency situation necessitating the new rules. The lawsuit also claims that the ETS improperly imposes “unprecedented financial and operational costs on employers” in the state and without evidence that the new requirements will significantly or even materially improve workplace health and safety as it pertains to COVID-19. The required measures further lack clarity, such that employers are not understanding what is required of them, and do not take into account resources, feasibility, or costs. Further, the action alleges that many of the requirements in the ETS have little to no connection to workplace health and safety and instead deputize employers to monitor non-work-related COVID-19 exposure risks. The suit filed by the agricultural associations follows a lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court by retail industry groups seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from the ETS.
To date, Cal OSHA and the other entities named in the suits have not publicly responded or acknowledged either complaint.