How a law meant to protect employees from workplace outbreaks shielded employers instead

A state law that was meant to alert Californians to coronavirus outbreaks in the workplace has led to confusion and ultimately less transparency, a Bay Area News Group investigation has found.

Six months ago, Assembly Bill 685 (D-Reyes) became law. It requires businesses to notify workers and public agencies when there is an outbreak of COVID-19. But the bill also contains language about the “the need to protect the privacy of employees from the public disclosure of their personally identifiable information.” As a result, many counties have been tight-lipped about workplace outbreaks, citing privacy fears.

When Bay Area News Group asked California’s 58 counties for specific information on workplace outbreaks, only about one-third of them acquiesced. Seventeen counties refused to provide information. Thirteen never responded. You can see a map of responses here.

Alameda, Monterey, Mendocino and Placer counties told the publication that Assembly Bill 685 actually prohibits them from giving out the information. Public health experts say the ones who end up protected are the business owners and not the public or workplace employees.

Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Reyes has introduced new legislation aimed at clarifying the law. It can’t come soon enough. Data from the 20 counties that did respond to Bay Area News Group’s request reveal a number of workplace outbreaks that have not been publicized before.


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