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Senate passes nation-leading bill to protect frontline workers

SB 5115 creates workers’ comp presumption for Washington’s essential workers who are infected with COVID-19


The following is from the Senate Democratic Caucus:

OLYMPIA (Feb. 24, 2021) — Frontline workers who are infected with COVID-19 would receive medical coverage and partial wage replacement for lost work hours under the Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (HELSA) passed Tuesday by the Senate on a vote of 48-1.

“HELSA would take a big step to assure frontline workers that they will be kept informed about what is happening in their workplaces and reduce the fear and anxiety they feel about coming to work every day,” said Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines), the bill’s sponsor.

SB 5115 would create a presumption that any frontline employees infected by COVID-19 during the current health emergency qualify for workers’ compensation, unless it is proven they caught it outside work. It would also require businesses to be more transparent about cases and potential exposure during a pandemic.

“We have heard a lot about ‘essential’ workers in the past few months,” said Keiser. “Our society depends on so many people who cannot work remotely — not just doctors and nurses, but tens of thousands of grocery store workers, bus drivers, people in meat packing plants. It’s time we started not just calling them ‘essential,’ but treating them as essential.”

HELSA would require employers to notify workers if they have potentially been exposed on the job and would prohibit employers from discriminating against workers who are at high risk of infection and who seek accommodations to decrease their risk.

HELSA would provide protections to virtually all workers who have significant interaction with the public, including first responders, health care workers, food service workers, teachers, grocery workers, and farm and food-processing workers. (See a full list here.) The scope of workers covered makes HELSA one of the strongest pandemic worker-protection measures in the nation.

“The HELSA provisions that help ensure people are covered by workers’ compensation if they get sick and ensuring there are employee notifications when there is an outbreak are both crucial to keeping our members and the students they serve safe,” said the Public School Employees of Washington/SEIU 1948.

To improve data collection and allow state agencies to target the pandemic response more effectively, HELSA requires that employers with more than 50 employees to report outbreaks of more than 10 cases to the state Department of Labor & Industries.

SB 5115 will now go to the House of Representatives for consideration. It has until April 11 to be approved by the House to be eligible to become law this year. The bill has an emergency clause and would take effect as soon as signed by the governor. The 2021 legislative session is scheduled to adjourn on April 25.



► From the Inlander — COVID-19 nearly killed a Washington farmworker. Now, the farm won’t pay his workers’ compensation — Eduardo, 38, worked for Washington Fruit and Produce under the federal H-2A program, which allows foreign agricultural workers to obtain a temporary visa and live in employer-provided housing. On Oct. 11, days after he told his wife that one of his housemates had COVID-19 symptoms, Eduardo had a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body, leaving him unable to talk or walk. The state Department of Labor & Industries has twice directed Washington Fruit to pay for Eduardo’s medical bills, time loss and other benefits that he’s entitled to under the industrial insurance act. But Washington Fruit has failed to pay those benefits, arguing it is not clear that Eduardo contracted COVID either at work or in employer-provided housing.

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