North Bay companies await Cal/OSHA’s next move on vaccine mandate

With the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejecting the Biden administration’s effort to impose a vaccination-or-testing requirement in most workplaces, it’s all eyes on Cal/OSHA.

Though the nation’s high court, with the exception of health care workers, stopped the administration from imposing its vaccine mandate on companies with 100 or more employees, those companies still face rules from the state agency in charge of worker health and safety.

And starting tomorrow, rules get tougher in the state’s emergency temporary standard (ETS), like the inclusion of a testing component that businesses need to offer and closely monitor through company management or a health care provider for workers to return to the job upon exposure.

And the agency board on Jan. 20 could decide to change things again. But the Supreme Court’s decision to toss the far-reaching mandate may have removed the need for Cal/OSHA to rewrite those rules.

“Cal/OSHA was waiting for this ruling. But now (the state) doesn’t have to make a new (plan), and there’s no indication they will,” California Chamber of Commerce Employment Law Counsel Matt Roberts told the Business Journal.

Nonetheless, businesses struggle to learn what they should do to keep workers safe and stay within ever-changing state and federal rules.

Roberts, who manages the labor help line for business members, said many company owners and managers are confused by who and what to follow.

“We’re deep in it (in California). We’re taking 120 calls a day from companies. Businesses will wonder what to follow. Their first look should be to Cal/OSHA,” Roberts said. “They’re concerned. They are really trying to do the right thing, but they’re getting whiplashed.”

It’s all hands on deck at the state chamber.

“I think employers are struggling right now of where to look for guidance. This is one of the most complicated Januarys for business that we’ve had in years,” California Chamber of Commerce Policy Advocate Rob Moutrie said.

“I hear from local businesses that, with so many regulations and so many new COVID requirements that change, they’re having a hard time keeping up. Consistency is what’s important to them,” San Rafael Chamber of Commerce CEO Joanne Webster said. “Now to run a company, you have to take a course in Human Resources. The problem is, many companies are too small for that.”

Examples are coming from all levels of governments.

First, the state through the California Department of Public Health and Cal/OSHA issued a mask mandate, which with the omicron variant taking off, transitioned from allowing cloth masks to now strongly urging the more heavy-duty N95 and KN95 respirators. Also, the state has imposed a rule requiring the masks to be worn indoors effective Feb. 15.

At the same time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health have changed their quarantine guidelines that shorten the recommended time when a worker may return to the workplace from 10 days to five.

Webster said she’s heard the testing and quarantining guidelines have posed a problem for Marin County companies that have been forced to send workers home, not to return unless they can produce a negative test result.

But tests are hard to come by.

“They can’t find a test, and if they can, it takes three to five days to get back results,” she said, adding if the number of cases rise again, a limit to hoarding tests should be imposed.

In the meantime, companies are having to pay employees who are not working.

That businesses are baffled and needing more information was shown Wednesday during a virtual conference hosted by Santa Rosa’s Spaulding McCullough & Tansil’s employment law attorneys Kari Brown and Lisa Ann Hilario.

The conference was packed with so much legal information, the attorneys compiled 46 “action items” companies need to know and do to be in compliance.

“I do not expect California to come back with a vaccine mandate,” Hilario told the Business Journal after the Supreme Court decision was handed down. The high court’s strong position against far-reaching mandates makes it unlikely that California would risk coming out with its own.

Hilario admits the current climate to business is “unfriendly,” but in many cases involving the coronavirus, public health comes first.

“It is real difficult to hear the lack of testing available,” she said.

Business liability goes beyond ways to keep employees safe such as providing and funding a mask inventory. Employers are also required by federal OSHA rules to maintain specific recordkeeping, including vaccination status and test results, and maintain them in a confidential file. Penalties for each violation is subject to a $13,653 fine.

“There are a ton of obligations on top of keeping a business running,” Brown said.

The recordkeeping extends to reporting outbreaks to local public health authorities within 48 hours or one business day, whichever is later. An outbreak is defined by state public health authorities as three probable or confirmed COVID-19 cases within a two-week period.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, biotech, 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

Show Comment