Gov. Ralph Northam said he asked the group to create the regulations in May due to a lack of mandates from the federal government. (View an FAQ for employers.)
“Workers should not have to sacrifice their health and safety to earn a living, especially during an ongoing global pandemic,” Northam said in a news release.
Under the new rules, every Virginia business will be required to:
- Enact social distancing measures.
- Mandate face coverings for all employees in customer-facing positions or when social distancing is not possible.
- Provide access to hand-washing stations or hand sanitizer.
- Regularly clean high-contact surfaces.
- Notify all employees within 24 hours if a worker tests positive for COVID-19.
- Keep employees with a positive diagnosis or suspected case of the virus home for 10 days after symptoms first appear or until they test negative twice.
The rules will also protect employees who report violations publicly or to a government agency from retaliation.
The regulations will go into effect the week of July 27. They will last for six months or upon expiration of Northam’s state of emergency.
The regulations classify some businesses into “medium,” “high” and “very high” risk categories and assign them additional rules.
Medium-risk businesses involve “more than minimal occupational contact” with other people and include meat and seafood processing plans, restaurants and bars, grocery stores, construction sites, jails, entertainment venues and movie theaters, among others. High-risk and very-high-risk jobs have a large chance of exposure to COVID-19 and include health care employees, first responders and mortuary workers.
After the rules go into effect, high-risk and very-high-risk businesses, along with medium-risk business with 11 or more employees, have 60 days to formulate a disease response plan that assesses risk of exposure and includes plans for absenteeism, prevention measures and isolating workers infected with the virus. Businesses in these three categories must also train employees on the regulations within 30 days of their publication.
Businesses who violate the regulations could be hit with fines of up to $13,000, with repeated violations costing up to $130,000.
Labor groups like the Virginia AFL-CIO have applauded the new regulations. Jason Yarashes, a lead attorney and program coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center who pushed for the new rules, said workers in rural areas like the Shenandoah Valley and the Eastern Shore rallied for the protections.
“Usually these folks are left out of protections,” Yarashes said. “That narrative has been flipped, because immigrant workers, low-wage workers, farm workers (and) workers at poultry plants spoke out for their rights and on behalf of the rights of others in the Commonwealth.”
Business groups, including the Hampton Roads Chamber and the Virginia Small Business Association, have opposed the regulations. Current unenforceable guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies make much more sense against the virus than static rules, said Emily Hasty, the chamber’s executive director, governmental affairs.
“Since the CDC and (the Occupational Health and Safety Administration) are doing their best to stay current with the ever-changing science of the virus, it makes sense to use them,” Hasty said in an email.
The steep fines could also hurt businesses trying to recover from the pandemic if the agency is heavy-handed with enforcement, Hasty said.
Lastly, she said the public only had a six-day window to provide written comments on the original draft of the regulations — and were unable to comment on amendments made during the meetings, since there were no public comment sections during them.
The regulations were considered by the safety board in four “marathon” sessions, said Megan Healy, Northam’s chief workforce development advisor. Healy noted that the group is made up of both business and labor interests.
“Business did vote for these,” she said. “These could’ve been worse. We could’ve said you have to test people — you have to do temperature checks.”
The Department of Labor and Industry plans to publish the final version of the regulations at doli.virginia.gov. Additionally, the department plans to publish training materials for businesses about the regulations, and the department’s consultation program will be providing free services for small and large employers.
Staff writer Marie Albiges contributed to this reporter.
Trevor Metcalfe, 757-222-5345, firstname.lastname@example.org