Understanding SB 1044: Protecting Employees in Emergency Conditions
California Senate Bill (SB) 1044, which added Section 1139 to the California Labor Code, has become a critical piece of legislation in protecting employees' rights in the face of unsafe working conditions. This article will delve into the background and purpose of SB 1044, discuss what qualifies as an "emergency condition," the concept of "reasonable belief" in the context of Labor Code 1139, and provide guidance for employees who have experienced retaliation or wrongful termination as a result of asserting their rights under this law.
California SB 1044 was introduced in response to an increasing number of emergencies, such as natural disasters and acts of violence, which exposed the need for robust employee protections. Prior to the introduction of SB 1044, there was a lack of clear guidance for employees who believed they were facing an unsafe work environment due to an emergency condition. Consequently, employees who refused to report to work or left their workplaces because of safety concerns were often vulnerable to retaliation or wrongful termination.
The primary purpose of SB 1044 is to provide a legal framework that protects employees who believe their workplace is unsafe due to an emergency condition. By adding Section 1139 to the Labor Code, SB 1044 prohibits employers from taking or threatening adverse action against employees who refuse to report to or leave a workplace based on a reasonable belief that the environment is unsafe. This law seeks to strike a balance between maintaining business operations and ensuring employee safety and well-being.
What is an Emergency "Emergency Condition?"
Under SB 1044, an "emergency condition" is defined as the existence of either of the following:
Conditions of disaster or extreme peril to the safety of persons or property at the workplace or worksite caused by natural forces or a criminal act.
An order to evacuate a workplace, a worksite, a worker's home, or the school of a worker's child due to a natural disaster or a criminal act.
Importantly, "emergency condition" does not include a health pandemic. It is important to note that the employee's belief that the workplace is unsafe due to an emergency condition must be reasonable, meaning that an objective person in the employee's situation would likely have the same belief.
What Qualifies as "Reasonable Belief?"
Under SB 1044, "A reasonable belief that the workplace or worksite is unsafe" means that a reasonable person, under the circumstances known to the employee at the time, would conclude there is a real danger of death or serious injury if that person enters or remains on the premises. The existence of any health and safety regulations specific to the emergency condition and an employer's compliance or noncompliance with those regulations shall be a relevant factor if this information is known to the employee at the time of the emergency condition or the employee received training on the health and safety regulations mandated by law specific to the emergency condition.
Some situations in which an employee may have a reasonable belief that their workplace is unsafe due to an emergency condition would be:
Natural Disasters: In the aftermath of an earthquake, an employee's workplace may have sustained significant structural damage that could lead to potential collapses or other hazards. If the employer has not taken proper steps to assess and address the risks, a reasonable person would likely conclude that entering or remaining in the workplace presents a real danger of death or serious injury.
Criminal Acts: A bomb threat has been made against a workplace, and the building has been ordered to evacuate. If the employer insists that employees continue working despite the evacuation order, a reasonable person in the employee's position would likely believe that the workplace is unsafe due to the potential for an explosion.
Hazardous Material Spills: An employee works at a facility that handles hazardous materials, and a significant chemical spill has occurred. Although the employer is required by law to provide training on emergency response procedures and personal protective equipment, the employee has not received such training, and the employer has failed to provide the necessary protective gear. Under these circumstances, a reasonable person would conclude that the workplace is unsafe due to the risk of exposure to toxic substances.
How SB 1044 Interacts with Other Employee Protection Laws:
SB 1044 is not the only legislation that aims to protect employees' safety and well-being. It interacts with other employee protection laws at both the federal and state levels:
Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA): OSHA regulations set federal standards for workplace safety and health. Under OSHA, employers must provide a safe work environment that is free from recognized hazards. While SB 1044 focuses on emergency conditions, OSHA regulations encompass a broader range of workplace safety concerns. Employees can file a complaint with OSHA if they believe their employer is violating health and safety regulations.
California Occupational Safety and Health Act (Cal/OSHA): Cal/OSHA establishes state-level safety and health regulations that are often more stringent than federal OSHA standards. Employers in California must comply with both federal and state regulations. SB 1044 complements Cal/OSHA by providing specific protections for employees who face emergency conditions.
Whistleblower Protection Act: This federal law protects employees who report violations of workplace safety, health, or environmental regulations from retaliation by their employers. SB 1044 offers similar protections, with a focus on employees who refuse to work or leave a workplace due to a reasonable belief that the environment is unsafe due to an emergency condition.
Can an employee refuse to work due to a health pandemic under SB 1044?
No, SB 1044 specifically excludes health pandemics from the definition of an
"emergency condition." Employees concerned about safety during a health pandemic
should refer to OSHA, Cal/OSHA, and other applicable health and safety regulations.
What is the difference between a "reasonable belief" and a personal fear?
A "reasonable belief" requires that an objective person in the employee's situation,
given the circumstances known to the employee at the time, would likely have the same
belief about the danger posed by the emergency condition. Personal fear, on the other
hand, may not necessarily meet the "reasonable belief" standard if it is based on
subjective feelings or concerns that are not supported by objective evidence.
Can an employer require an employee to provide proof of their "reasonable belief?"
While an employer may inquire about the basis for an employee's belief, they cannot
demand proof as a condition for honoring the employee's refusal to work. However, an
employer may take reasonable steps to verify the employee's claim, such as conducting
a safety assessment or consulting with relevant authorities.
Are there any exceptions to the protections provided by SB 1044?
Yes, there are some exceptions to the protections provided by SB 1044. For instance, if
an employee's job responsibilities include responding to emergency conditions (e.g.,
firefighters, emergency medical personnel), they may be required to work in situations
that would otherwise be considered unsafe under the law. Additionally, employees who
knowingly make false claims or exploit the protections of SB 1044 in bad faith may not
be protected from adverse employment actions.
What to do if you Experience Retaliation or Wrongful Termination:
If you believe you have experienced retaliation or wrongful termination as a result of asserting your rights under Labor Code 1139, it is crucial to take the following steps:
Document the situation: Keep a detailed record of the events, including any communication with your employer regarding the emergency condition, your concerns, and any adverse actions taken against you.
Consult with an attorney: Seek legal advice from an attorney experienced in employment law to assess your situation and guide you through the process of filing a claim if necessary.
Preserve your rights: Be mindful of deadlines for filing claims and follow your attorney's guidance to ensure you do not inadvertently waive any rights.