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Virginia becomes first state to adopt COVID-19 worker safety rules
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Virginia becomes first state to adopt COVID-19 worker safety rules

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Virginia became the first state in the nation to adopt mandatory workplace safety rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, a step backed by some labor groups but opposed by a coalition of business organizations.

The state’s Safety and Health Codes Board voted 9-2 on Wednesday to adopt what are called “emergency temporary standards.” The rules are expected to take effect within weeks and are designed to help prevent COVID-19 infections in Virginia workplaces in the absence of federal government mandates.

The regulations will require businesses to implement various safety measures, including requirements that employees be notified within 24 hours if a co-worker tests positive for the virus.

Under the rules, employees who are known or suspected to be positive for COVID-19 cannot return to work for 10 days or until they receive two consecutive negative tests.

The rules also set requirements for social distancing in workplaces and face coverings for employees who have contact with the public, and require access to hand sanitizer and hand washing along with frequent cleaning of high-contact surfaces.

Workers would be protected as whistleblowers if they were to report violations, including on social media posts.

Companies could face fines from a few thousand dollars to as much as $13,000 per violation. “Willful” and serious violations could result in fines as much as $130,000.

“Workers should not have to sacrifice their health and safety to earn a living, especially not during a pandemic,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement on Wednesday. “In the face of federal inaction, Virginia has stepped up to protect workers from COVID-19, creating the nation’s first enforceable workplace safety requirements.”

“Keeping Virginians safe at work is not only a critical part of stopping the spread of this virus, it’s key to our economic recovery and it’s the right thing to do,” Northam said.

Virginia’s rules will go into effect after being published in a newspaper in Richmond, which state officials said they plan to do the week of July 27. The rules will last for at least six months.

Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industry developed the regulations in late May under Northam’s direction. The state’s Safety and Health Codes Board held four lengthy meetings over several weeks to discuss and amend the rules.

But business groups have objected that the meetings, which were held online, did not provide sufficient opportunity for public comment.

The new rules were backed by labor organizations and worker advocates, who say enforceable regulations are necessary to protect essential workers.

“The federal government only issued guidelines and recommendations through the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” said Jason B. Yarashes, an attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center, an organization that supported the regulations. “There were not any enforceable protections on the books related to COVID.”

“What Virginia did today was to step in and fill that void where the federal government was not protecting workers,” Yarashes said. “Virginia created a blueprint for other states across the South and the nation to get on the right track during this pandemic.”

Opposing the new regulations was a coalition of business and industry groups, including the National Federal of Independent Businesses, the Virginia Manufacturers Association and the Virginia Retail Federation.

The business groups said the regulations are unnecessary because many businesses across the state already have adopted safety policies based on guidelines from the CDC. The new rules, the groups say, would impose costly burdens on businesses.

Brett Vassey, president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, said businesses were not given sufficient opportunity to comment on the new regulations. He said the rules are being thrust upon businesses after most already have taken steps over several months to mitigate COVID-19 exposure.

“There are going to be a lot of businesses caught by surprise,” Vassey said, adding that about 300,000 businesses in Virginia will have to take steps to be in compliance with the regulations.

“The idea that everybody is going to be in compliance is going to be a farce,” he said.

Nicole Riley, the Virginia director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said the regulations would hurt Virginia’s economic recovery.

Vassey and Riley said the regulations would require businesses to implement new training programs for their employees. Those training programs will be difficult and costly for businesses to implement in the time frame set out by the regulations, Riley said.

“Is the training they did two months ago compliant?” she said. “Are they now going to have to do new things? This is every employer that is going to be touched — no matter the size.”

The new rules come amid a federal fight over workplace safety mandates as Congress gears up for a debate on a new COVID-19 relief package.

Democrats and advocacy groups have accused the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration of being largely invisible during the pandemic and failing to protect workers at meatpacking plants, health care facilities and other high-risk sites.

Instead of an emergency standard for U.S. workplaces, the agency has relied on voluntary guidance that recommends companies take various steps to erect physical barriers, enforce social distancing and install more hand-sanitizing stations.

“Finally, Virginia has demonstrated that it values workers,” said Doris Crouse-Mays, president of the Virginia AFL-CIO, in a statement. “We now have standards that will protect workers, families, and communities by keeping them as safe as possible during this unprecedented time.”

jblackwell@timesdispatch.com

(804) 775-8123

Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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