On May 11, 2021, the state of Washington passed legislation related to Labor Standards—Public Health Emergencies. The new law known as the Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (HELSA) applies to workplaces only during a declared public health emergency involving an infectious or contagious disease.

The HELSA takes the place of the interim high-risk employees (HRE) proclamations, put in place by Governor Inslee in 2020. HELSA provides certain protections in employment for HRE, including accommodations to limit exposure to infectious or contagious diseases during a public health emergency.

Please see program provisions and Q&A’s for additional details below.

The information provided on this site is subject to change based on further information and guidance provided by Federal and State entities

Last Update July 9, 2021


On this page

Overview and Program Provisions
Eligibility
Entitlement
To Apply
Questions & Answers
Resources

Overview

What is the Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (HELSA)?

The Health Emergency Labor Standards Act (HELSA) ((ESSB)-5115) applies to workplaces only during a declared public health emergency involving an infectious or contagious disease. This new law provides high-risk employees, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with certain protections in employment including accommodations from exposure during a public health emergency. The HELSA protects high-risk employees from being discharged, permanently replaced, or discriminated against in the workplace for seeking accommodation from exposure to an infectious disease. Guidance on the new legislation was provided by the Department of Labor and Industries on June 22, 2021.

Program Provisions

As of May 11, 2021, if an employee presents a recommendation from their medical provider affirming that they are high risk and need to be removed from the workforce, the employer must engage in an interactive process with them to determine an appropriate accommodation. Upon approval, accommodations may include but are not limited to alternative work assignments, alternate work locations on an employer’s worksite, social distancing measures, and telework, if feasible. If an alternative work assignment is not feasible, or the employee declines, the employee may be allowed to use accrued leave or leave without pay in accordance with University policy and seek unemployment benefits. Additional HELSA provisions include:

  • In order to be protected under HELSA, the employee must obtain a recommendation from their medical provider affirming they are high risk (based on age or medical condition) and must not be present in the workplace because of their high risk for severe illness.
  • The employee is not required to disclose any medical condition or diagnosis to their employer for the purposes of this law.
  • The employee may take any available leave including leave without pay and unemployment insurance, if eligible, while awaiting a decision from the employer.
  • There is no requirement that an employer will maintain employee benefits, including health insurance, life insurance, long-term disability insurance, seniority, or employee discounts, under this law. Employees are to work with HRS Benefit Services regarding questions related to coverage if on a leave of absence related to HELSA.
  • HELSA protects high-risk employees from being discharged, permanently replaced, or discriminated against in the workplace for seeking accommodation from exposure to an infectious or contagious disease during a public health emergency.

Eligibility

Employee Type
Faculty, Administrative Professional, Classified staff, Temporary/Hourly

High-Risk Employee
An employee who is at an age or has an underlying health condition that puts them at high risk of contracting a severe illness (as defined by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) from an infectious or contagious disease that is the subject of the public health emergency;
AND
Has obtained a recommendation from a medical provider for removal from the workforce due to their high risk of contracting a severe illness.

Entitlement

The University determines what accommodations may be approved based on the facts of each individual situation and information provided by the employee. Employees are responsible for providing sufficient information including medical documentation so that the University is able to make the appropriate determination. Employees may be approved for HRE accommodations only during a public health emergency involving an infectious or contagious disease.

Request types may include but are not limited to:

  1. Alternative work assignments or work location on worksite, if feasible, and social distancing measures.
  2. Alternative telework or remote work location assignments, if feasible.
  3. Use of accrued leave
  4. Unemployment benefits if an alternative work assignment is not feasible and the employee is unable to safely work
  5. While awaiting a decision from the employer, if eligible the employee may take any available leave including leave without pay and unemployment insurance.

To Apply

General Questions

What qualifies as a high-risk employee? (Updated 4/30/2021)

A “high risk employee” is any employee defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19. That includes older adults, people who are pregnant, and those that have certain medical conditions or need extra precautions. While there’s no specific age that defined as “older,” risk for severe illness with COVID-19 increases with age, with older adults more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19.


Certain medical conditions can also make a worker “high risk.” Those underlying medical conditions are continually updated as the CDC learns more, but may include cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic lung disease, dementia, diabetes, certain heart conditions and others. A full list is available on the CDC website under certain underlying medical conditions.

Can the employer require medical verification if the employee is requesting an accommodation? (Updated 7/14/2021)

Yes. Under HELSA, an employee must engage in this new interactive process in which an employer now requires medical verification that a worker is high risk and is therefore entitled to the protections under the new law.

What is medical verification? Who provides it? (7/14/2021)

Medical verification is provided by a health care professional. It is a medical opinion whether the employee is high risk and whether the employee should be removed from the workforce with additional accommodation. This should take into account the employee’s medical condition, vaccination status, and circumstances of the job or workplace.

What must the employer do to accommodate the employee? (Updated 7/14/2021)

If requested by an employee, an employer must use all available options for alternative work arrangements to protect high risk workers from exposure to infectious disease. If an alternative work arrangement is not feasible, the employer must allow the worker to use their choice of any available leave including leave without pay or unemployment insurance if eligible.

Can the employer require the employee to return to the job site? (Updated 7/14/2021)

If your medical provider indicates that you are a high-risk employee and should be removed from the workforce, your employer cannot require you to return by threatening to terminate your position.
Nothing in the HELSA supplants or alters existing legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act or entitlements to pregnant workers for accommodation under the Washington Law Against Discrimination.

Are employees required to get a vaccine? (Updated 4/30/2021)

An employer may require employees to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, with certain exceptions. However, the employer must treat all workers equally. An employer cannot single out any individual worker to require vaccination. For further information, including protections for individuals with medical or religious protections, please review guidance from the EEOC and L&I.

Does risk reduce with the COVID-19 vaccine? (4/30/2021)

Yes. According to the Washington Department of Health, vaccines are highly effective at preventing COVID-19 and can greatly reduce your chance of getting seriously ill if you get COVID-19. Further information can be found here.

Does vaccine status affect employees rights under HELSA? (Updated 7/14/2021)

The HELSA states medical verification is to be required prior to an employee receiving an accommodation. It is up to your medical provider, but any medical verification shall take into consideration an employee’s vaccination status when making a determination when an employee may return to work.

What type of notice will an employee receive if an existing accommodation will be changed? (4/30/2021)

Under Proclamation 20-46.3, employers are required to provide at least 14 calendar days’ notice before changing an accommodation or benefits as a result of the new provisions. While that decision is being made, the worker may take leave. If leave is not granted and adverse action is taken such as being terminated, a worker may be protected. Contact L&I DOSH at 1-800-423-7233.

Health Coverage

What will happen to employer-provided health coverage? (4/30/2021)

Under the latest version of the proclamation, employers are permitted to terminate employer-provided health coverage. Employers must ensure that coverage endures through the remainder of the month in which the 14 days’ advanced notice lapses.

Is there an example of how timing works for the end of coverage? (4/30/2021)

Example: An employer gives their employee notice that employer-provided health coverage will no longer be offered to high-risk employees electing not to return to work. Notice is given on April 20, 2021. Because the 14-day notice period lapses on May 4th and because coverage must continue through the end of the month, the employee should obtain alternative coverage that begins June 1, 2021, as soon as possible.

What are some options for continued coverage? (4/30/2021)

Once you receive notice from your employer that employer-provided health coverage will be discontinued, you may qualify for COBRA coverage, and you can also explore affordable options through Washington Healthplanfinder.

For free help exploring your options and signing up for coverage through Washington Healthplanfinder, call the Customer Support Center. Language assistance is provided in over 200 languages.
1-855-923-4633
TTY: 1-855-627-9604

Employee wants to enroll in coverage through Washington Healthplanfinder, what actions does employee need to take? When to act? How to avoid a gap in health coverage? (4/30/2021)

To sign up: visit Washington Healthplanfinder; complete the application; report that you have a ‘loss of other coverage’; enter your employer coverage end date (last day you will have employer coverage), review your plan options, and enroll.


When you lose your employer coverage, you have up to 60 days before or after your employer coverage end date to sign up for coverage through Washington Healthplanfinder. To help avoid a gap in health coverage, sign up for coverage before your employer-coverage end date.

For example, if your employer coverage ends May 31st, sign-up in May for coverage that will start June 1st. For more information visit Washington Health Benefit Exchange.


The federal American Rescue Plan Act, which passed in March 2021, has also extended additional financial assistance to individuals who enroll in coverage, making coverage as affordable as ever. You can learn more about the American Rescue Plan and the new available assistance by reviewing the American Rescue Plan FAQs.

Eligibility

Are healthcare employees, first responders or other essential personnel excluded from the Proclamation? (updated 4/23/2020)

No, there are no exclusions. If an employee is at high-risk, as defined by the CDC, employer is required to accommodate them.

Are employees required to provide documentation to verify that they are high-risk? (updated 4/23/2020)

If an employee is requesting accommodation due to being in a high-risk group, they are to complete the high-risk employee workers’ rights-accommodation request and they provide sufficient facts to support the request.

I have an employee in my work unit whom I believe fits one or more of the high-risk employee categories. Should I reach out to them directly to ask if they would like accommodation? 

Because of the risk of potential “regarded as disability” discrimination and age discrimination, it is recommended to communicate to all employees about the proclamation rather than to reach out directly to specific employees who have not asked for accommodation. 

I want to take care of a family member who is in the high-risk employee category under the CDC guidelines. Am I eligible for this accommodation program under that circumstance

No. The High-Risk Employee program is specific to employee accommodations for their own condition.

Alternate Work Location/Telework

Can an employee decide not to telework or work in an alternative location, if alternate work options are available, if the employee has been approved for a HRE accommodation? (updated 4/23/2020)

Yes, an employee who has been approved for a HRE accommodation may decide to not work even if alternative work options are available due to their determined level of safety and ability to work in that capacity.

If employee who meets the high-risk employee category as defined by the CDC is already teleworking for non high-risk reason, does the employee need to complete the form to continue to do so?(Updated 4/23/2020)

No. If a high-risk employee, as defined by the CDC, has already made alternate working arrangements that they believe protect them from COVID -19, then they do not need to complete the High-Risk Employee Workers’ Rights – Accommodation Request to continue to do so.  

If alternate arrangements need to be made please contact Disability Services.

Telework has been requested and offered to a high-risk employee, where they will not have to come in to a WSU worksite at any time, but they indicated they would rather take leave. Does leave need to be approved in these circumstances?

The Proclamation gives discretion to employees about how best to remain safe, therefore the state is encouraging employers be flexible with employees at this time in approving the used of accrued leave. 

Leave Options

Is an employee required to exhaust their accrued leave prior to filing for unemployment if they are unable to work due to their status as a high-risk employee?

No, employees may file for unemployment benefits even if they have not exhausted their available accrued leave.   

In what order can employees use leave when approved for leave under the Proclamation? 

Employees may use their accrued leave in any sequence at their discretion. 

Unemployment

If an employee is not being laid off, how are they able to seek unemployment benefits? What documentation should be provided to them if they request information related to the Proclamation? (updated 4/17/2020)

ESD has passed an emergency rule allowing an employee to file for benefits due to lack of work when they are unable to work due to being a member of a high-risk group as defined by the CDC. If an employee is seeking to use unemployment benefits rather than using leave due to lack of an alternative work arrangement, the employer would provide documentation to ESD if there is a lack of work. The employee is responsible for identifying appropriate information to provide to ESD if they decline leave or alternate work arrangements.

Can an employee decline an accommodation offered?

Per the State of Washington Human Resources, yes. The intent of the Proclamation is to give employees control over how best to remain safe. Even if the employer is offering telework, a high-risk employee could decline it in favor of leave or unemployment.

Resources

State of Washington

Washington State Human Rights Commission

WSU