COVID-19 workplace safety rules change for California employers

The new rules, approved in December by Cal/OSHA, come as the state faces an increase in COVID-19 cases due to omicron.

Updated: January 14, 2022 - 9:43pm

Revised workplace safety rules went into effect across California on Friday, including new employee testing and masking requirements.

The new rules, approved in December by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (Cal/OSHA), come as the state faces an increase in COVID-19 cases associated with the highly contagious omicron variant.

Under the new regulations, employers must provide testing at no cost and during paid time to all employees who had close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 in the workplace – including those who were fully vaccinated before the close contact. This change represents a shift from rules passed last summer, which excluded fully vaccinated individuals who did not experience symptoms from the testing requirement after close contact.

In addition, the new regulations bar employees from using “self-administered and self-read” tests, meaning that workers cannot take a test at home by themselves. Instead, tests must be processed in a lab or self-administered if observed by an employer medical professional over telehealth.

The new guidance also updates quarantine requirements for employees who test positive for COVID-19.

Earlier this month, the California Department of Public Health aligned with the Centers for Disease Control recommendations that reduced the amount of time employees are required to quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19. Those changes took place in the workplace on Friday.

Under updated protocols, employees who test positive, regardless of vaccination status, must quarantine for at least five days before returning to work. Employees can then return after five days if their symptoms have resolved and test negative on day five of isolation.

If an employee continues to experience symptoms, they cannot return to work until symptoms resolve or until 10 days after a positive test.

Officials from the California Chamber of Commerce said that while the updated protocols call for increased testing among employees, it will “simultaneously shorten the exclusion periods for employees who test negative.”

“In the view of the California Chamber of Commerce, that is a good trade-off for California’s employers because it will allow healthy workers who test negative to return sooner, but will weed out individuals who actually have COVID-19,” Rob Moutrie, a policy advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce, told The Center Square. “In light of the present labor shortage, California’s workplaces desperately need every healthy worker.”

Moutrie noted, however, that CalChamber is concerned that the current testing shortage could make the new requirements difficult for certain employers, “particularly for smaller employers who cannot compete for the scarce supplies.”

The new Cal/OSHA protocols also update guidance for employees exposed to COVID-19.

Under the new protocols, employees who are unvaccinated or are fully vaccinated and booster eligible but have not received a booster dose yet must be excluded from the workplace for at least five days after close contact and must be tested before returning.

Vaccinated workers who received a booster shot or were recently vaccinated and not yet booster eligible are allowed to remain in the workplace if they get a negative test result on day five of exposure and wear a face covering for 10 days after initial exposure.

The new regulations also include updated masking guidance, requiring employees to wear masks that fit snugly over the nose and mouth and “do not let light pass through when held up to a light source.” Surgical masks, N95s, KN95s, tightly woven fabric masks and gaiters with at least two layers are acceptable under the guidance.

California recently extended its indoor masking mandate, which requires masks to be worn in all indoor public spaces through Feb. 15. The initial guidance was issued in December and was set to expire in mid-January, but health officials extended the mandate due to rising case rates.

The new Cal/OSHA guidelines that took effect Friday are set to expire in mid-April.