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Following the implementation of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s (Cal/OSHA) COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS) on November 30, 2020, several employers and trade associations filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court for declaratory and injunctive relief against Cal/OSHA.

The lawsuit, National Retail Federation, et al. v. California Department of Industrial Relations, et al. (Case No. CGC20588367), was the first filed seeking to prevent the agency from enforcing the ETS.

Shortly thereafter, the Western Growers Association filed a related case in Los Angeles Superior Court. However, in an effort to avoid “duplicative and inconsistent rulings,” the Western Growers Association lawsuit was transferred to San Francisco and the cases are being heard together.

The lawsuits alleged that the ETS were improper for several reasons, including that Cal/OSHA “exceeded the scope of its authority to promote occupational safety and health by attempting to regulate wages and paid leave” and “arbitrarily and capriciously deprive[d] Plaintiffs of property without just compensation or due process, particularly with respect to the COVID-19 testing and mandatory periods of paid exclusion from work.”

On January 28, 2021, Superior Court Judge Ethan P. Schulman heard oral argument on the motions for a preliminary injunction in both cases. Both sides articulated a number of arguments.

Jason S. Mills of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP argued on behalf of the NFR, and claimed that two new requirements – mandatory testing and paid leave for exposed employees – exceed the agency’s authority. Freeing employers from those two requirements won’t lead to increased Covid-19 cases in workplaces, he argued.

David A. Schwarz of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP represented the Western Growers Association asked the court to also block provisions regulating employee-provided housing and transportation. The regulations, which dictate things like the distance between beds and the number of people allowed on a bus, border on logistical absurdity when applied to the agricultural industry, Schwarz said. And he asserted that the labor shortage in that industry will be exacerbated by these rules.

Last Thursday, Judge Schulman denied the request for a preliminary injunction. His ruling said that the standards board “properly found that the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an emergency” and that prior guidance was “not sufficient to address” the risk of occupational spread.

Judge Schulman also dismissed the argument that Cal/OSHA lacked the authority to enforce the ETS, and held that if he granted the injunction, “numerous workers in California would suffer severe and irreparable harm.”