District passes emergency legislation to protect workers from COVID-19
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Since May 29, 2020, when some District businesses began to reopen, many jobless workers contacted Legal Aid for advice. These workers’ concerns were two-fold: they feared being required to return to jobs that might not yet be safe, which could risk their health and the health of their household members, and yet they also feared being “reported” by their employers to the unemployment office for refusing work, which could jeopardize the unemployment benefits they needed to survive the pandemic. Black workers, immigrants, and workers with limited English proficiency reported feeling especially vulnerable. Indeed, a recent nationwide survey demonstrated that employers disproportionately retaliated against Black workers for raising safety concerns with their employers.

Under District law, unemployment benefit claimants cannot refuse “suitable work” and continue to receive benefits -- however, the law is clear that  “suitable work” must be safe. Unfortunately, in the absence of any enforceable guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on safe working environments during the public health emergency, many workers had to make difficult decisions about returning to work without enough information about whether the District would consider a job offer “suitable” (safe) or not.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman took bold action last week to fill some of the gaps in this area of the law by introducing an emergency bill: the Protecting Businesses and Workers from COVID-19 Emergency Amendment Act of 2020. Tuesday, July 28, 2020, the Council passed this emergency legislation with amendments made in during the legislative meeting.

This legislation is in accord with the Mayor’s Order from last week, which requires that “employers shall provide masks to their employees.” The legislation also prohibits retaliation against employees:

  • with a positive COVID-19 test, as long as those employees did not physically report to the workplace after receiving a positive COVID-19 test result;
  • who were exposed to someone with COVID-19 and who need to quarantine;
  • who are sick and waiting for a COVID-19 test result;
  • who are caring for someone who is sick with COVID-19;
  • who refuse to serve or work with an individual who refuses to social distance or wear PPE; and
  • who are exercising their rights under the bill.

Importantly, the Mayor and Attorney General of the District of Columbia are authorized to enforce this legislation. The Mayor may conduct investigations and assess penalties. The District Attorney General may conduct investigations and bring civil actions in District courts. DC workers may contact the Attorney General at (202) 727-3400 or by email at oag@dc.gov.

This emergency legislation is a crucial first step toward a system of rules and regulations that support worker safety during the public health emergency and before more permanent legislation can be passed.

Legal Aid proudly thanks Councilmember Silverman for her leadership on passing these important rules in a time where federal policymakers have left employers and workers uncertain about steps to take in order to reopen safely.

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