Protecting Georgia’s Workers Must Be Our Top Priority

The past year has been tough on all Americans. There have been lockdowns after lockdowns, quarantines and separations from loved ones and many have been left in complete isolation. However, many Americans have stepped up and taken action to continue to provide for and support our communities. These essential workers have endured constant COVID-19 exposures and long working hours to ensure that Georgia families and communities have all the essential resources, such as food, household products and personal protective equipment, needed to function in these troubling times. In return, essential workers have endured members of our community not properly social distancing or wearing a mask correctly. They have endured harassment from exposing their employer’s incorrect implementation of COVID-19 regulations and enforcement of those regulations.These workers have had to work under dangerous conditions for almost a year and it is about time that we provided physical and economic protection to them under the newly introduced HB 699.

HB 699 aims to protect workers from coronavirus by enforcing social distancing through the use of flexible worksites (e.g., telework),  flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), increased physical space between workers at the worksite to six feet, increased physical space between workers and customers, flexible meeting and travel options, delivering services remotely and delivering products through curbside pick-up or delivery. Further, this bill advocates for reconfiguring spaces where workers congregate including lunch and break rooms, locker rooms and time clocks. The bill also provides free masks and sanitizers to all employees, requires employers to immediately tell employees of a COVID-19 exposure without revealing the exposed employee’s identity and increases the percentage of outdoor air that circulates in the ventilation system. With these measures in place, essential employees will have a safer environment to work within and will have a protocol in place for how the workplace environment should operate in these troubling times.[2]

The bill also aims to provide whistleblower protection and the right to refuse to work under dangerous conditions. Measures include protecting workers from employer harassment if an employee exposes dangerous working conditions. Further, the legislation protects them from signing contracts that limit the employee’s right to expose dangerous COVID-19 violations and protects employees from an employer taking adverse action to remove them from their position at work after employees have exposed their violations. The act also provides them with the right to refuse to work under conditions that the worker reasonably believes would expose him or her, other workers or the public to an unreasonable risk of illness or exposure to COVID-19. The last measure that the act takes to protect workers is guaranteeing insurance benefits will remain in place if a worker needs to take a leave of absence for a variety of issues that have arisen with the emergence of COVID-19. With these measures enacted, workers will be able to maintain flexible work schedules and stay safe from contracting COVID-19 without fear of being terminated or losing their unemployment insurance benefits.

In conclusion, HB 699 will be a lifesaver for Georgia’s essential workers, as it provides economic and physical protection during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with an overdue peace of mind during these troubling times.