A bill to allow all employed Californians to refuse to report to work if they feel it is unsafe during a state of emergency, passed the critical Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee on Monday.
Senate Bill 1044, authored by Senator Maria Elena Durazo, would specifically prohibit employers from taking or threatening adverse action against any employee who either refuses to come into work or is leaving the workplace within an affected area of a state of emergency or emergency situation if the employee feels unsafe. SB 1044 would also prevent employers from preventing employees using a phone, cell phone, or other communication device for seeking emergency assistance, assessing the safety of the situation, or communicating with a person to confirm their safety.
Since being introduced last month, the bill has gone through extensive amendments, most notably changing SB 1044’s original usage of “natural disasters” with “state of emergency” or “emergency situation,” as well as expanding what devices could be used to communicate with others during emergencies.
Senator Durazo wrote the bill to allow workers to leave jobs or job sites when they want during emergencies rather than being confined there until being given the okay by their boss or place of work. She specifically cited numerous domestic workers who died when they were not allowed to leave work sites in the 2018 Southern California mudflows, as well as other deaths and near deaths stemming from wildfires since the late 2010s.
“The ability to keep yourself safe on the job, and especially so in life or death situations, should be a given, but many workers are subjected to what is essentially confinement at their jobs during natural disasters,” Senator Durazo said. “SB 1044 will make sure that these workers can look out for their own safety while not having to fear losing their job as a consequence.”
Support for, opposition against SB 1044
Supporters have noted that the bill simply allows employees to leave if there is imminent danger to them or if they have loved ones they need to warn or know if they are ok.
“No one should be fired just because they are calling their spouse to know if they were not killed in a wildfire they had been near or if they don’t want to come to work due to a wildfire being nearby,” Jess Delgado, a Los Angeles-area maid service employee representative on safety and welfare issues told the Globe Tuesday. “SB 1044 will prevent deaths and gives employees the power to make sure that they and loved ones are or can be safe during such an emergency.”
However, opponents have come out in force against the bill, saying that SB 1044 can be easily abused, would be a major job killing bill, would jeopardize public safety due to missed shifts for essential workers, and harms other employees who stay to have increased duties, as well as the departing employees to not have to consider the safety of others in their workplace.
“SB 1044 would give license to essential workers to skip shifts without prior permission or planning, jeopardizing public safety,” said the California Chamber of Commerce in a statement on Monday. “Under the bill, any employer who disciplines an employee for failing to report to work due to a cited state of emergency—whether that State of Emergency actually impacts the employee or not—would be subject to a lawsuit and penalties under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). Additionally, CalChamber believes the broad applicability of the bill raises safety concerns for other employees in the workplace because it does not require workers to give any notice to the employer if they leave or choose not to show up, and does not require workers to consider the safety of others in their workplace.”
In addition, CalChamber noted that “state of emergency” is a broad term, as some states of emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and droughts, last for years and could be abused by workers to get off work while remaining protected since the affected area is statewide rather than specifically localized. Opponents also say that SB 1044 is simply not needed due to existing Cal/OSHA regulations and other state and federal laws that provide safety regulations, allows employees a safe workplace, and protects employees from retaliation if those laws are violated.
“Durazo has been trying to sell this bill as a common sense sort of legislation, but the thing is we already have the laws on the books,” said Paul Gibson, a labor and employment law researcher in Los Angeles, to the Globe on Tuesday. “All she is doing is putting in certain highlights of that and broadening the term of what constitutes a state of emergency enough to take off of work. This is a bill that, at least in its current form, can be easily abused. For this bill to work, a lot needs to be clarified or reigned in. Right now, it’s way too vague in areas and, under it’s current wording, can allow people to stay at home if they think they are in danger of a drought anywhere in the state. It is nuts.”
Despite opposition to the bill, SB 1044 received enough support to pass 4-1 in the Senate Labor, Public Employment, and Retirement Committee on Monday. The bill is now expected to move to another Senate committee in the coming days. More revisions are expected before AB 1044 goes before a full Senate vote.