By Sheri Williams
In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced new help for essential workers in California, as they increasingly are bearing the greatest burdens of the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the state, essential workers including nurses, farm workers, restaurant workers, delivery drivers and others are at risk every day as cases of the virus continue to explode in the state.
Newsom pointed out that many of these essential workers are Latino or people of color, and are being asked to stay on the job despite great risk and mounting certainty that the pandemic is hitting them with more serious cases of the virus because of their work.
Newsom announced new programs to help essential workers if they need to quarantine after being exposed to the virus. He also debuted an education campaign for workers and employers and committed to working with the Legislature and key stakeholders to expand critical protections like paid sick leave.
“Stopping the spread of COVID-19 depends on keeping our workers safe,” said Newsom. “The vital work they do every day puts them and their families at higher risk for exposure and infection. Taking action to protect them will help protect all Californians. Working with the Legislature, we will advance new initiatives to support these key workers and their employers.”
Many of those at greatest risk are union members in medical fields, retail, food service and other front-line jobs. They have struggled to gain access to protective equipment.
Unions have been on the front lines fighting for that protective equipment, as well as rights for workers to safe workplaces.
“The governor’s actions are an important step in the right direction,” said Sacramento Central Labor Council executive director Fabrizio Sasso. “But we must continue to push for enforcement of safe workplaces, hazard pay, childcare and guarantees that the voices of workers will be heard as they continue to risk their lives during this tragic pandemic.”
Helping Workers Isolate and Quarantine
Newsom said while announcing the new aid that many essential workers don’t have living situations that enable them to quarantine at home. Some live in crowded conditions or in multigenerational households with elderly family at greater risk from the virus.
“Providing safe, suitable places for isolation outside a home can help stop the spread to other household members. This is especially important for people who live in multigenerational households,” the state said in a release.
California will allocate existing federal funds to local public health departments and community-based organizations to assist with supportive services for isolation and quarantine.
A new program, Housing for the Harvest, will provide temporary isolation spaces for agricultural and farmworkers who test positive or were exposed to the virus, which limits the risk of spreading COVID-19 to their coworkers or households. This program will operate in partnership with counties and local partners in the Central Valley, Central Coast, and Imperial Valley – the regions with the highest number of agricultural workers.
“These efforts build on the state’s experience with already-established isolation programs, including Hotels for Health Care Workers serving COVID-19 positive patients and Project Roomkey, the non-congregate shelter program for COVID-19 positive, exposed or vulnerable homeless Californians,” the release said.
Building on California’s public awareness campaign to #WearAMask and #StoptheSpread, California will also launch another outreach campaign to expand its reach to employers, to workers and to their families to inform them of ways they can break the cycle of spread and reduce their risk for COVID-19. This effort will work with community-based organizations, promotoras, labor unions and worker advocacy groups to directly reach workers.
Newsom also said he will work to expand paid sick leave to provide workers financial security so they are able to stay home when sick. Similarly, he said he would work to increase workers’ compensation access to help ensure that front-line workers can quarantine and stay home from work when ill.
Newsom also announced new efforts to push employers to comply with safety measures, including increased enforcement of workplace safety laws.
Proactive education efforts led by the Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) will provide information and support to businesses to help them come into and stay in compliance, including technical assistance and a model training program. Additionally, the state will provide employers information to share with their workers regarding health insurers’ COVID-19 testing coverage and eligibility requirements.
Already, Cal/OSHA and the Labor Commissioner’s Office have strategically targeted investigations in high-risk industries, where the state has seen the most workplace outbreaks. Newsom said more of those investigations would take place, along with a quicker timeline for enforcement. Requiring employers to report outbreaks to their local health departments will help track county transmission. Governor Newsom will work with the Legislature to establish this authority.