On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. A pandemic is defined as a global spread of a new disease often applied when viruses are able to infect people easily and spread from person to person in an efficient and sustained way. On March 19, 2020, an executive order and public health order directed all Californians to stay home except to go to an essential job or shop for essential needs to disrupt the spread of COVID-19 among the population. On May 20, 2020, the County of San Diego developed guidelines for businesses such as restaurants and retail businesses to open safely to have customers in the premises with restrictions. On May 24, 2020, the State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology developed guidelines for hair salons to open safely. This all means that as of late May, 2020, businesses are starting to re-open, of course, with safety measures required. It is expected for larger organizations and theme parks open in late June 2020 or early July 2020.
With employees returning to work, businesses are looking to limit liability related to COVID-19 exposures. A few calls and questions I have received include:
- Can I issue COVID-19 liability waivers for employees to sign?
- If an employee refuses to sign a COVID-19 liability waiver, must I still let them work?
- Can I ask customers/clients to sign COVID-19 liability waivers before entering my business?
- Are COVID-19 liability waivers enforceable?
- What can I include as part of my COVID-19 liability waiver?
Generally speaking, liability wavers are permitted but enforceability depends on its contents and what exactly an employer is trying to limit liability from. There are certain risks, hazards, and employee rights that an employer cannot lawfully shield themselves from. For the latter part of the sentence, think worker’s compensation rights and other statutory rights afforded to California employees. Look out for specific executive orders passed in March, April, May, June 2020.
Enforceability of such waivers have not yet been tested through the court system and it is not yet known if courts will limit what an employer can include in such waiver.
Even with signed waivers, employers need to focus primarily on implementing safety and security measures imposed at the city, county, and state level. These include at minimum: (i) physical distancing, (ii) use of face coverings by workers and customers, (iii) frequent handwashing and regular cleaning and disinfection, and (iv) training workers on these and other elements of the COVID-19 prevention plan.