Employers Scramble to Meet State Deadline for Violence Prevention Plan

Employers Scramble to Meet State Deadline for Violence Prevention Plan
Sunder Ramani, owner and managing partner, Westwind Studios in Burbank. (Photo by David Sprague)

Like tens of thousands of other employers around Los Angeles County, Sunder Ramani is scrambling to meet a July 1 state deadline to craft a custom-tailored workplace violence prevention plan.

Ramani owns and is the managing partner of Westwind Studios, a post-production company in Burbank with about 100 employees. In the nearly 30 years since Ramani founded the studio, he has seen many state laws go into effect that impact his business operations.

But to Ramani, this deadline, which is part of a bill signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September known as SB 553, is one of the vaguest – and most frightening – laws he’s ever seen.

In a nutshell, under SB 553, nearly every employer in the state is required to draw up a detailed plan to prevent workplace violence incidents and implement a system to respond to any such incidents that do occur.

The law exempts major health care establishments that have had to comply with a similar law on the books for several decades; it also exempts law enforcement and prison agencies. Employers who never have 10 or more employees on their premises are also exempt.

Besides the plans, the law also requires annual training sessions for all employees on the steps they need to take to reduce the risk of – or respond to – workplace violence incidents.

Failure to have a plan in place by July 1 subjects the employer to fines from state regulators when they go out to inspect workplaces for health and safety violations.

But the details about what is supposed to go into these plans are vague – in part because it depends on input from employees. The same goes for the training sessions.

“What do I put in the plan?” Ramani asked. “And in doing this, am I supposed to scare the bejesus out of my employees?”

But that’s just the start of Ramani’s concerns. He is worried that with this law in effect, employers like himself will be vulnerable to lawsuits from employees or others visiting the premises, especially after an incident occurs.

“Even with all these plans and training sessions in place, I can never prove that I did everything possible to prevent a violent event from occurring,” Ramani said. “This is especially true when it’s something involving the homeless or one of these smash-and-grab robberies, situations over which I have little or no control.”

In effect, he said, “It’s an open-ended litigation trap.”

Spurred by Northern California transit workplace massacre

This was not the stated intent of the law when it was first introduced as a bill early last year by state Sen. David Cortese (D-San Jose) in response to a mass shooting at a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority facility in May 2021. The shooting spree left 10 dead, including the gunman, an agency employee; it was at the time the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the Bay Area.

In a statement issued after the bill was signed in September, Cortese said, “The journey of SB 553 began in the aftermath of the 2021 massacre at the Valley Transportation Authority railyard in my district in San Jose. On that horrible day, we quickly realized how safety protocols can and must be enhanced. In the following days and months, more solutions for preventing workplace violence emerged.” 

Cortese added, “This groundbreaking law will help workers and employers establish a plan for the types of workplace violence that are on the rise.”

The bill was sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. Initially, it drew opposition from the California Retailers Association, the California Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups; however, after a series of compromises, those groups withdrew their opposition.

Drawing up the violence prevention plans

Under the law, the plan has to be tailored to each specific workplace facility, taking into account the physical layout and all points of entry. And management must solicit input from employees using the workplace.

“We recommend sending out a questionnaire to all employees, asking them if they feel safe at work, whether they observe things like security cameras not working, people loitering on or near the premises, doors left unlocked, etc…” said Kim Gusman, chief executive of the California Employers Association, a Sacramento-based trade association representing employers across the spectrum of industries.

Kim Gusman, chief executive of the California Employers Association

Gusman noted that her association’s consultants have been swamped in recent weeks handling panicked calls from employers and human resources executives seeking guidance with their plans. She added that at a June 4 seminar on the topic hosted by her association, roughly 75% of the attendees had not even started drawing up a plan – with the deadline a mere four weeks away.

Once employee input is obtained, the plan itself should address threats from coworkers, customers, vendors, former employees, employee family members or significant others, and even from complete strangers, she added.

The plan must also designate employees or company executives as point people for implementing its provisions. And the employer must set up a system of incident logs, so that when an incident occurs, everything is recorded in a standardized manner.

Once the plan is drawn up, the employer must then train all employees on the crucial points of the plan and the key steps they should take before, during and after a workplace violence incident.

One area that will need further clarification is the extent to which the plans must cover employees when they spend a significant amount of time at third-party worksites, such as on a construction site.

“One of the issues I’ve seen employers struggle with: When you have employees that go out to other worksites, what are the obligations there? That’s a gray area,” said Hannah Sweiss, a partner with the Atlanta-based law firm Fisher & Phillips who splits her time between the firm’s Los Angeles and Woodland Hills offices.

Attorney Hannah Sweiss

Another area of concern is the extent to which employers have to reduce the threat of violence from sources that traditionally have been of larger societal concern or the province of law enforcement. The obvious example in the L.A. area is homeless individuals who station themselves at or near entrances to businesses.

“The concern about having to deal with the homeless is that this law is not clear about how far an employer can go to remove threats of violence against customers and employees trying to access the premises,” Sweiss said. “That’s a gray area of the law that will have to be litigated and is an especially big issue here in Los Angeles.”

Word not getting to many employers

Gusman said that even though the law was passed in September and the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration – better known as Cal-OSHA – published general guidelines in March, most employers have only found out about the law in recent weeks. Many more, she said, have still not heard about it.

One local business owner who only found out about the law just after the Memorial Day holiday is Nick Montaño, owner of Los Toros Restaurant, a Mexican eatery in Chatsworth that employs roughly 30 people.

“I haven’t had a lot of time to pull anything together,” Montaño said. “My first reaction was that this is totally unnecessary. We of course take steps to make sure our employees feel safe. They are like family.”

He added that if a violent incident occurs, his employees have until now been instructed to call for law enforcement to respond.

“If we have a homeless guy coming into the restaurant and behaving erratically or has a knife, my employees are instructed not to intervene and instead to call the police,” Montaño said. “I don’t see how drawing up a big, complicated plan is going to change that.”

Montaño called the law “another example of politicians crushing California businesses. They tell us we need to do this but don’t think about what it means for small business owners like me.”

No posts to display