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Inslee Signs Bills Offering Protections for Frontline Workers During Public Health Crises

One bill has an anti-retaliation measure for whistleblowers

A restaurant worker wearing blue latex gloves wipes down a wood table with a yellow piece of cloth.
New Washington legislation codifies protections for frontline workers during public health emergencies.

Two new Washington laws could have big impacts to the restaurant industry during COVID and all future public health emergencies. Amid a flurry of action at the tail end of the state’s legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5115 and House Bill 1097. The former requires that businesses give frontline workers — which includes restaurant employees — rapid notice of potential exposure to infectious disease and makes it a little easier to receive compensation if they fall ill. The latter bill offers protections for employees who come forward about potential workplace hazards, and offers grants to certain employers to acquire protective equipment.

These laws codify and clarify some protections that were more ad hoc through Inslee’s executive orders when the pandemic first began. For instance, restaurants and businesses that were defined as “essential” were already required to perform contact tracing measures for COVID. But SB 5115 makes clear that, if an employer receives notice of potential exposure to an infectious disease during a public health emergency, they must notify all employees who were at risk in writing within one business day. SB 5115 also defines contagious diseases such as COVID as “occupational diseases” at certain worksites. That means restaurant employees who get sick from such illnesses as a result of exposure during a shift could apply for workers’ compensation more easily, rather than relying on paid sick leave rules.

Meanwhile, HB 1097 gives power to the Department of Industries and Labor to assess up to $70,000 in fines for repeated violations of health and safety guidelines. It also contains a stipulation that employers can’t discriminate against any worker who has filed a complaint or “instituted a proceeding” under the act, nor any employees who may testify in court regarding potential violations. This aims to protect whistleblowers who come forward, and employees who believe they may have been punished for reporting an issue have 90 days to file a complaint with the labor department.

One other aspect of HB 1097 offers some money to restaurants who need to buy equipment to comply with public health requirements. The bill creates one-time grants to employers who have 25 or fewer full-time workers in the event of a state of emergency to purchase protective gear (such as masks and plastic partitions), as long as those costs aren’t already covered by another program. This may come as good news for restaurants who scrambled to retrofit spaces to meet Washington’s “Stay Healthy” requirements over the past year, and were left competing with a limited number of state and federal grants to cover additional expenses.

The two laws go into effect immediately, although both restaurant owners and their employees may wonder what took so long. While Inslee’s various reopening plans contained many guidelines for restaurants, and existing labor regulations offered some protections for essential workers most impacted by the pandemic, it would have helped to solidify clearer frameworks in reporting potential COVID exposures much earlier. But at least these regulations will be in place as vaccinations ramp up, and officials eye further reopening of the economy.