Most employers are aware that California imposes a duty on them to provide a safe workplace for their employees. In keeping with that philosophy, the Legislature recently enacted a new law dealing with workplace safety during natural disasters or other emergency conditions.
What the new emergency working conditions law means for employers
While it is often thought of as the land of sunshine and mild weather, California has more than its fair share of natural disasters – from earthquakes to fires to floods. Then, of course, there are man-made threats like active shooters, violent protests, hate crimes and more. We usually think of these as items we see on the news. But they can also affect an employer’s workplace and employees.
What does the new law mean for employers? For starters, employers should not expect their employees to come into work if they’re unable to make it in due to events beyond their control or if they could face danger on the way to or at their workplace – nor should they be expected to remain in a potentially dangerous workplace. In addition, employers need to be mindful of how they handle these situations and deal with employees.
Changes to the California Labor Code
A law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September (SB 1044) adds a new section to the California Labor Code that prohibits employers from “taking or threatening adverse action against any employee for refusing to report to, or leaving, a workplace or worksite within the affected area” in the event of an “emergency condition” if they have a reasonable belief that it’s not safe. The new law takes effect on January 1, 2023.
The law also makes it unlawful for employers to prohibit employees from using their mobile phones or otherwise “seeking emergency assistance, assessing the safety of the situation, or communicating with a person to confirm their safety.” An “emergency condition” can include not just conditions at or around a workplace or an employee’s home but at a school where an employee has a child.
The new law, of course, doesn’t apply to emergency service workers, hospital and other health care or residential facility employees, first responders and others who may be needed in an emergency situation. Among those listed as exempt are less obvious workers, including “depository institution” employees. Therefore, it’s important to know whether your business is affected by the new law. As with most new California employment laws, it behooves an employer to consult with legal counsel to assess applicable requirements and obligations.
A tragic case across the country
Many of our readers likely remember the tragic situation that occurred at a candle factory in Kentucky in December of last year. As a tornado moved toward the area, workers who wanted to go home were told by supervisors that they would probably be fired if they left before their shifts were up. Some left anyway, but others stayed behind. Tragically, the factory was ultimately destroyed by the tornado, leaving multiple people inside dead. SB 1044 will make this type of employer action not just a tragic miscalculation, but also a clear-cut violation of law.
Fortunately, the new California law doesn’t simply give employees the freedom to leave as they choose. As previously noted, their belief that the workplace presents a danger must be reasonable under the circumstances. They must inform their employer of the emergency (if it is not already known to the employer, such as the case with an emergency at a child’s school or otherwise outside the workplace) and return when the emergency has passed and it is safe to do so.
If you have questions about the new law and its applications to your workplace, we encourage you to seek legal guidance before a situation occurs that could leave you facing legal issues and potential liability.