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Cal/OSHA’s backpedaling on workplace reopening rules confuses business community

If you’re a California employer, you may want to slack off of demanding workers return to the office until at least June 27 — even with the state’s planned reopening 12 days before.

“Or come back at your peril,” North Bay Leadership Council CEO Cynthia Murray said Thursday, the day after California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board changed workplace guidelines yet again. “It’s a mess.”

On Wednesday, the Cal/OSHA board reversed rules adopted after a tumultuous, marathon hearing June 3. Those rules would have allowed vaccinated employees to remove their masks unless they work alongside unvaccinated people.

That’s gone now. Instead, the board overseeing the state’s work safety regulations will consider what standards to set at its regularly scheduled June 17 meeting.

Whatever the panel adopts will be sent to the state Office of Administrative Law. The state legal office has 10 days to approve the measure, amounting to June 27 as the earliest date for rules to go into effect.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared Californians can be mostly mask free, but the business community has been looking for Cal/OSHA for guidance on mask wearing in the workplace.

Until then, the more stringent guidelines adopted in November apply, from a time before vaccines even came out. This essentially means that regardless of vaccination status, everyone needs to mask up indoors and socially distance.

“If you’re an employer, I wouldn’t change my present practices. That would be a wise, pragmatic decision,” said Rob Moutrie, a California Chamber of Commerce policy advocate. Moutrie is convinced many companies may hold back from changing their operations since the rules change more frequently.

Lisa Ann Hilario, an attorney who’s an employment law specialist at Spaulding, McCullough & Tansil in Santa Rosa, said Cal/OSHA wanted to be on the same page with other agencies like the California Department of Public Health. It issued new, less restrictive guidelines on June 9.

“OSHA knew it was going to have to revise them again on June 17 anyway,” she said.

On Thursday, Cal/OSHA also found itself in conflict with the federal U.S. Department of Labor, which issued less restrictive mask guidelines.

State law only allows two changes to proposed guidelines, and it didn’t make sense to change them for about a week, Hilario pointed out. It was determined that would be a waste.

“We’re going to have masks in the workplace until (at least) June 27,” she said. “The problem is, this is so unprecedented to have science develop as we go, and the rules need to be compliant.”

Her advice to companies is simple from a legal standpoint: Don’t bother returning to the office if you don’t have to.

That memo has apparently circulated to the local business community.

“We’ve been keying in on June 15 for a long time (as a time for return), but we’ve got different agencies saying different things,” Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Peter Rumble said. “The science is what it is. The rulemaking? That’s politics.”

Rumble believes many area businesses will forego a rush to return to the office unless they have to, as uncertainty has created some reluctance with all the knee-jerk changes.

“I think it’s going to be a mixed bag getting people back to work. A lot of business operations on some level have been virtual (already),” he said. “Science is what it is.”

As one example, Marin Clean Energy plans to keep its workforce of about 70 employees working remotely until September.

“We wanted to be thoughtful and intentional with our process,” MCE spokeswoman Jenna Famular said.

This method of operation to continue some form of remote work could be the norm.

“If you’re working for a company that’s already been doing it for 14 months, they’ll continue to do it. But what about the front line employees? You have to continue to wear them (for now at least),” Personnel Perspectives recruiter Karen Alary said. “You can’t win for trying.”

When asked why there is doubt enough to constitute mask wearing among vaccinated people if they’re protected or seldom spread it, Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis said: there’s a “chance someone could be fully vaccinated and get the virus.”

Willis admitted those cases are rare.

And at least one industry with many front-line workers has learned the importance of vaccination, which no agency is requiring but recommending. Many North Bay businesses are shying away from enforcing vaccination too.

“Vaccines have proven to be very effective at preventing serious illness from the coronavirus and are credited with today’s dramatically reduced rate of hospitalization. Policy-making should recognize this fact,” said Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, now a part of the Union Tribune in San Diego County, along with the Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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