The California Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee recently passed Senate Bill 1044, moving the legislation one step closer to a vote by the full state senate. SB 1044 would permit employees, without notice, to leave their workplace—or not show up to work at all—if they “feel unsafe.”
SB 1044 would prohibit employers from taking any adverse action against employees who decide to leave the premises or not arrive at work during a state of emergency or emergency condition when the employees “feel unsafe.” It would also prohibit employers from limiting employees’ use of mobile phones or other communications devices in such an event, if the employee wishes to communicate about their safety, seek emergency assistance, or assess the situation. The requirement that the employee must “feel unsafe” to be protected by SB 1044 is subjective, meaning that an employee would be protected under this bill even if their feeling about being unsafe is completely irrational.
In addition to national, state, and local states of emergencies, SB 1044 would extend this allowance to “emergency conditions,” defined as an “event that poses serious danger to the structure of a workplace or to a worker’s immediate health and safety” or an “order to evacuate a workplace, a worker’s home, or the school of a worker’s child.”
It’s worth noting that the State of California has been in a persistent “state of emergency” due to the COVID-19 pandemic since March 4, 2020.
An employer who disciplines an employee for leaving the premises or not showing up to work under this bill would be subject to a lawsuit under the Private Attorneys General Act, which permits employees to initiate a representative action lawsuit on behalf of themselves and other “aggrieved employees” based upon perceived violations of the law.
SB 1044 is strongly opposed by employer organizations and other business interests, including the California Chamber of Commerce, which has labeled the bill a “job killer.” Over 60 such organizations expressed their opposition to the Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee. Among the points raised in opposition was that SB 1044 would actually reduce public safety, by allowing emergency workers such as firefighters or healthcare workers to leave work or stay home even when their services are urgently needed. Despite this opposition from the employer community (or perhaps because of it!), the Committee passed SB 1044 along party lines. We will continue to monitor the bill’s progress.