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California's Workplace Violence Protection Bill Clears Key Hurdle

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An improptu memorial comprised of candles, flowers and handwritten messages.
A memorial for victims of the VTA train yard shooting by City Hall in San José on May 27, 2021. State Sen. Dave Cortese, who represents the district, said the mass shooting compelled him to propose legislation to protect workers from violence at their job sites. (Karl Mondon/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

A California bill that aims to help protect most workers from violence at their job sites has cleared a key hurdle in the Legislature, and heads now for a full vote in the Assembly.

Under SB 553, employers in all kinds of industries would be required to implement a workplace violence prevention plan developed together with their employees. Similar protections have been in place for healthcare workers since 2017.

Democratic lawmakers in the Appropriations Committee advanced the measure last week, after amendments included exemptions for very small businesses. The California Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied for the changes, withdrew its opposition today.


Aggressive or violent behavior at work sites has increasingly become a serious concern, especially in industries such as retail, which has suffered a spike in reported assaults, particularly at grocery and convenience stores.

One of the 57 Californians who died (PDF) from work-related violence in 2021 was Miguel Nuñez Peñaloza, a clerk at a Rite Aid in Los Angeles. The 36-year-old was fatally shot after confronting a shoplifter at the store.

“What happened to him was tragic. It still makes me cry,” said Juana Rodriguez, 70, who remembered her coworker of several years as kind and respectful. “I’m afraid that something like that could happen again.”

Her employer installed a better security camera system and a guard for all shifts after the fatality, Rodriguez said. But she worries about the fact that shoplifting has become more frequent.

SB 553 would help improve safety by pushing more employers to communicate at least annually with workers about how to minimize hazards, as well as keep a log of violent incidents, she said.

“Employers would really know what we are facing each day,” said Rodriguez, a member of the United Food & Commercial Workers, which sponsored the bill. “We are the ones that are frontline at the store, risking our lives.”

Addressing opposition concerns

The California Chamber of Commerce, representing a long list of business groups including the California Retailers Association and the California Grocers Association, initially fought the measure. The Chamber argued, in part, that the bill would be infeasible for small employers, and create considerable costs for all other businesses.

But after changes announced last week that exempt potentially hundreds of thousands of workplaces with fewer than 10 employees that are not accessible to the public, the Chamber of Commerce changed its position (PDF) to “neutral,” meaning it won’t actively oppose the measure.

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Robert Moutrie, a policy advocate with the Chamber of Commerce, cautioned that some business groups might still fight it because of expected costs.

“There’s no one in our coalition who in any way thinks that workplace violence is not a terrible thing,” said Moutrie. “But the issue has been how do we make sure that the requirements we’re putting on businesses and public entities are feasible to do and realistic and really solve the problems? And that has been our back-and-forth.

Law enforcement agencies, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and locations chosen by employees to work remotely would also be excluded from the bill, which would go into effect in July 2024.

State occupational safety and health regulators have been crafting a standard that would apply to industries outside healthcare. But that rulemaking process by Cal/OSHA, delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been under way for six years and is nowhere near completion.

“That’s not a good thing when you have violence spiking up and people losing their lives,” said state Sen. Dave Cortese (D-San José), who authored SB 553. “Rules should be put in place as soon as possible.”

In a statement, a Cal/OSHA spokesperson said the agency continues to work on its proposed regulations, and does not comment on pending legislation. But Sen. Cortese said his office has been working “closely” with Cal/OSHA to shape the measure.

Currently, there are no specific nationwide standards to address workplace violence, though employers are supposed to provide a work environment that’s “free from recognized hazards,” according to federal OSHA.

If SB 553 is approved by the legislature and signed by the governor, California would become the first in the nation to enact such requirements, said workers’ rights advocates.

Response to a mass shooting

Cortese, who chairs the Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee, said he felt compelled to address the issue after the mass shooting at the Valley Transportation Authority rail yard in San José in 2021, which remains the deadliest on record in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Cortese recalled learning from first responders that they couldn’t immediately enter the building, where the shooter was still active, because they didn’t have an access key card. Cortese was also taken aback by the story of one of the victims who helped coworkers escape through a window onto a roof before he was killed.

“Had there been a plan in place that everyone understood, that this is how you get out of the second floor if there’s an intruder or an emergency that closes off access the other way … it could have saved lives,” said Cortese.

According to the latest figures by federal regulators, workplace violence is the third leading cause of fatal occupational injuries in the U.S., killing 761 workers in 2021. However, mass shootings make up a small fraction of workplace homicide incidents, according to occupational safety experts.

About 1.3 million nonfatal work-related victimizations such as assaults and robberies occurred in the U.S. on average each year between 2015 and 2019, according to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and other federal agencies. Exchanging money with the public and working with volatile or unstable people such as in healthcare settings, are some of the most likely risk factors.

Why healthcare led the way in California

Before healthcare employers in the state were required to take steps to prevent violence, psychiatric nurse Rachel Cohen Zepeda said she witnessed terrible assaults on coworkers at different hospitals in the Bay Area, often by patients.

A person wearing a sport coat and sitting at a large round table speaks into a microphone.
Dave Cortese, then a District 15 State Senate candidate, speaks during a forum at the Campbell City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“We knew we weren’t safe. People were getting beat down, like, head smashed onto the floor, chased, battered, patients would attack other patients,” she said.

But the rules have given nurses like her a seat at the table to push for safety improvements, said Cohen Zepeda.

A guard is now available in the building to immediately respond to incidents, and nurses are regularly trained on how to prevent violence and, if necessary, get out of choke holds. The panic buttons work, she said.

“You need laws in place that force employers to acknowledge the situation and try to do something about it,” said Cohen Zepeda, who is part of a workplace violence prevention committee at UCSF.

“I don’t think everything is fixed already. It’s a work in progress,” she added. “But it’s a complete change of culture from ‘You are a nurse, you are a human punching bag, what do you expect?’ to ‘Oh, this is not acceptable.’”


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