COVID-19 may no longer dominate the front-page headlines, but for California businesses, compliance with Cal/OSHA’s new and updated regulations for handling COVID-19 infections in the workplace cannot be overlooked, as fines for non-compliance are now significantly higher and can be in excess of $150,000.
COVID has gone from pandemic to endemic, but California companies are feeling the virus’s lasting impacts in the form of ongoing workplace guidelines, and multiple businesses have already been fined for non-compliance.
While Cal/OSHA Emergency Temporary Standards expired at the end of 2022, Cal/OSHA’s new “permanent” regulations took effect in February 2023 and will remain in place for at least two years.
“These new standards should be a wake-up call,” says Dr. Soumi Eachempati, co-founder and CEO of CLEARED4, a cloud-based health and safety software platform. “Before February 2023, employers were not pressured to meet the previous standards since so many employees were working from home and not in the main workplace. Now the rules regarding COVID reporting, mandatory testing, and data storage are clear and will need adherence.”
The regulations set forth how a business addresses workplace hazards, employee training, and recordkeeping. The changes are significant and can be read here.
Now, organizations must securely store confidential medical records separately from personnel files. This ensures critical patient privacy standards and protects their confidential data for ADA and HIPAA-compliant storage. Additional requirement highlights include identifying and tracking COVID-19 cases in the office, facilitating contact tracing and notifying exposed employees, maintaining records of COVID cases, testing exposed personnel, providing masks to relevant employees, and informing Cal/OSHA of major outbreaks, and managing office exclusions for those affected.
While still strongly encouraged, the new regulations eliminate the need for employers to do daily screenings and symptom checks. Since the Cal/OSHA Emergency Temporary Standards ended on December 31st, 2022, temporary Exclusion pay is also no longer required, and employers don’t need to maintain earnings and benefits when an employee is excluded due to COVID-19.
The Risk to Employers
Compliance is not to be taken lightly. “The full scope of government is behind these regulations that are designed for employee health and safety,” Dr. Eachempati says. Noncompliance comes with penalties of up to $5,000-$10,000 per incident and repeat offenders can be hit with a fine of $150,000.
Unlike some other regulations, there will not be announced inspections of workplaces — the threat is something else. “Companies will be racing to put in place a system of compliance before their next outbreak takes place. Many companies will not be prepared for this,” continued Dr. Eachempati. “The risk is enormous for larger companies or ones at risk for outbreaks. What if an employee is hospitalized or dies? Their company will be on the radar, or they may be prone to whistleblower reports.”
Reach Out for Assistance
For sure, this is not a time for companies to wing it. “Some companies had emergency COVID teams in place or employees who took on COVID compliance as a side job and those employees are no longer doing this work so there is a void as to who will lead compliance,” says Eachempati, who recommends companies turn to a law firm or consultant to help navigate the new regulations.
There are complexities and nuances, and plenty of ways for a company to make costly mistakes. “The biggest is thinking that what you did last year will work now,” he adds.
CLEARED4 has extensive experience with COVID safety and compliance. They can automate the new reg’s pain points with their technology. For example, for the requirement that free testing must be available for eligible employees, CLEARED4’s solution enables employees to order COVID tests and other PPE equipment delivered in bulk to offices, or directly to an individual’s home. To meet the requirement of recording all positive cases, CLEARED4 permits employees or administrators to upload COVID test results into CLEARED4 with real-time validation. When it comes to education and training, CLEARED4 provides the annual education and training needed for compliance.
“CLEARED4 has consulting and technology arms, so we can educate clients about the regulations then help them get up to speed with our easy-to-use technology. We became a one-stop shop,” Dr. Eachempati says.
The Right Place at the Right Time
Timing is everything. When Dr. Eachempati co-founded his tech company pre-pandemic to offer creative solutions for difficult problems in health care, he couldn’t have envisioned the path the company would eventually take. Dr. Eachempati was a Professor of surgery and Public health at Weill Cornell Medical College for 20 years and was exploring digital solutions to make emergency care more effective and efficient. He also had served as director of the surgical ICU and trauma at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Health Center and was asked to return to the hospital in April of 2020, as COVID brought him back to the frontlines.
“The amount of damage COVID inflicted in New York City at that time was the worst that occurred from the pandemic in the United States to date or subsequently,” he says. The experience propelled him to act and use his company to make the pandemic less dangerous for all. “We focused on COVID safety and created a product that would help people get back to work and school.”
CLEARED4’s tools include contact tracing, monitoring of employees’ COVID-19 symptoms, the ability to upload vaccination and/or testing data, which can be reviewed and approved, and employees greenlighted to return to the office, among other capabilities. Various industries, such as healthcare, education, and hospitality, have already been utilizing these tools.
The company has pivoted again, extending CLEARED4’s platform to focus on compliance to manage the new Cal/OSHA rules, and has added more customized health and safety solutions for employers. “Our future platform will include solutions for workforce management, wellness analysis, and optimizing productivity. With technology and creativity, the potential is limitless,” Dr. Eachempati says.
What’s been key for the company to keep evolving with its technology? Dr. Eachempati says it comes down to customer feedback. “We regularly ask our customers what we should do next. We have been following their lead, we evolve to meet their needs.”
That feedback has been priceless and the changes to the business strategy fruitful. “The additions have been great for customer retention and attracted new business.”
Looking back over the last few years, Dr. Eachempati says, “American businesses are alive and well. Companies are finding solutions to maintain their businesses and keep their employees safe during a crisis. One lesson everyone has learned during the pandemic is that nothing is static forever and organizations need to prepare for all potential issues.”
As for what’s next, Dr. Eachempati sees health and safety compliance along with wellness as key areas. Cleared4 intends to explore the role AI can play in their automated solutions and software. “The ultimate goal,” Dr. Eachempati concludes, “is for employees to experience an environment where they and their employees will derive the maximum sustained collective benefit.”