A proposed California law, Senate Bill 1044, would greatly lower the threshold for employees to leave their workplace without discipline if they feel unsafe due to a "emergency conditions." The bill, which recently passed the California Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee, will now move to the full state senate floor for a vote.
This bill proposes to prohibit employers from taking or threatening any forms of discipline against any employee for refusing to report to, or leaving, a workplace affected by emergency conditions because the employee feels unsafe. Further, SB 1044 would forbid an employer from preventing any employee from accessing the employee’s mobile device or other communications device for seeking emergency assistance, assessing the safety of the situation, or communicating with a person to verify their safety.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), who said in a statement that "The ability to keep yourself safe on the job, and especially so in life or death situations, should be a given, but many workers are subjected to what is essentially confinement at their jobs during natural disasters. SB 1044 will make sure that these workers can look out for their own safety while not having to fear losing their job as a consequence."
Employer groups are concerned with the broad language of the bill. The bill's definition of "emergency condition," which triggers the right for employees to leave the worksite, is wide-ranging. The events which trigger the worker protections include:
A Presidential declaration of a major disaster or emergency, caused by natural forces, in accordance with the federal Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act
A declared state of emergency or local emergency due to conditions of disaster or extreme peril to the safety of persons or property within the affected area caused by natural forces.
A federal, state, regional, or county alert of imminent threat to life or property due to a natural disaster or emergency.
An event that poses serious danger to the structure of a workplace or to a worker’s immediate health and safety.
An order to evacuate a workplace, a worker’s home, or the school of a worker’s child.
Employer groups have pointed out that California has been in a continuous “state of emergency” due to COVID-19 since March 2020.
The bill's language, allowing employees to leave the worksite where they "feel unsafe," is far more subjective than the current standard. Employees would only have to say that they feel unsafe; there is no objective standard or a reasonableness requirement. Currently, under CalOSHA regulations, employees can refuse to work if the following conditions are met: Performing the work would violate a Cal/OSHA health or safety regulation; and the violation would create a “real and apparent hazard” to employees. Additionally, employees must inform their supervisors of the hazard and must be willing to continue working if the hazard is corrected. Federal OSHA requires that employees have a reasonable, good faith belief that there is a real danger of death or serious injury.