Amid a pandemic, the sharing of timely information is key to stopping the spread of illness.
That is why I was shocked to learn only through news media reports more than a week after the fact that a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives had tested positive for COVID-19. And I was appalled that the partisan leadership of the House chose not to notify, in a timely fashion, the member’s colleagues from opposing parties, his counterparts in the Senate, or the state employees whose jobs require them to be in the halls and offices of the Capitol during a pandemic.
Prompt and comprehensive notification could have and should have been conducted, but it was not. In light of these events, I renew my call for the General Assembly to immediately advance my legislation, Senate Bill 464, which would, for the first time, provide all public employees on the state and local levels with the same workplace health and safety protections enjoyed by all the nation’s federal and private-sector employees.
In his public statement Wednesday, the House member reported that he last visited the Capitol on May 14, was tested on May 18 after developing typical COVID-19 symptoms, and was confirmed positive on May 20.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that the incubation period for COVID-19 is 14 days. Therefore, by the time this member and his caucus notified the rest of us of a potential exposure, the virus could have been spread through the chain of social contacts to literally hundreds of individuals.
In subsequent public statements, the member’s caucus has reportedly cited health-care privacy laws for the decision to withhold this critical and potentially lifesaving information from people who were and are directly affected by it. However, the restrictions codified in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) apply only to health insurers, health-care clearinghouses, and health-care providers. They do not apply to employers.
The member personally stated that he kept quiet about his diagnosis “out of respect for my family, and those who I may have exposed.” Yet, I am quite certain that the people who he may have exposed would have very much appreciated a heads up about it.
More than that, being informed promptly about workplace health hazards should be their right.
Among many other provisions, SB 464 would require state and local public employers, including school districts, to “provide reasonable and adequate protection to the lives, safety or health of the employees.” Employers would have to notify employees of the confirmed presence of health hazards like COVID-19 in the workplace.
Further, the legislation would create the Pennsylvania Occupational Safety and Health Review Board to oversee and enforce its workplace health and safety requirements, including worker notification of the hazards that threaten them. Private and federal employers already furnish their employees with these protections.
As the spread of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania slows and businesses begin to reopen throughout the commonwealth, employers must keep workers informed about the risks that they face. If employers choose not to do that, then the law should mandate that they do so. Senate Bill 464 should receive consideration immediately — as should all employees.
Christine M. Tartaglione is a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania state Senate.