OLYMPIA — Frontline workers who are infected with COVID-19 would receive medical coverage and partial wage replacement for lost work hours under the Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (HELSA), passed today by the Senate on a vote of 48-1.

“HELSA would take a big step to assure frontline workers that they will be kept informed about what is happening in their workplaces and reduce the fear and anxiety they feel about coming to work every day,” said Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines), the bill’s sponsor.

SB 5115 would create a presumption that any frontline employees infected by COVID-19 during the current health emergency qualify for workers’ compensation, unless it is proven they caught it outside work. It would also require businesses to be more transparent about cases and potential exposure during a pandemic.

“We have heard a lot about ‘essential’ workers in the past few months,” said Keiser. “Our society depends on so many people who cannot work remotely—not just doctors and nurses, but tens of thousands of grocery store workers, bus drivers, people in meat packing plants. It’s time we started not just calling them ‘essential,’ but treating them as essential.”

HELSA would require employers to notify workers if they have potentially been exposed on the job and would prohibit employers from discriminating against workers who are at high risk of infection and who seek accommodations to decrease their risk.

HELSA would provide protections to virtually all workers who have significant interaction with the public, including first responders, health care workers, food service workers, teachers, and grocery workers. For a full list, see here. The scope of workers covered makes HELSA one of the strongest pandemic worker-protection measures in the nation.

“The HELSA provisions that help ensure people are covered by workers’ compensation if they get sick and ensuring there are employee notifications when there is an outbreak are both crucial to keeping our members and the students they serve safe,” said the Public School Employees of Washington.

To improve data collection and allow state agencies to target the pandemic response more effectively, HELSA requires that employers with more than 50 employees to report outbreaks of more than ten cases to the state Department of Labor & Industries.

SB 5115 will now go to the House of Representatives for consideration. It has until April 11 to be approved by the House to be eligible to become law this year.

The bill has an emergency clause and would take effect as soon as signed by the governor.

The 2021 legislative session is scheduled to adjourn on April 25.