Workplace Planning for Coronavirus Concerns

As coronavirus continues to spread in the United States, employers continue to inquire how they can safeguard employees’ health and well-being while ensuring the ability to maintain essential business operations. Our advice remains the same: The best way to prevent infection is to avoid exposure. Working from home for as many employees as possible is now the new normal for most businesses.

In addition, employers large and small should take the time now to assess their policies and processes, addressing specific operational and human resources plans and issues in light of the current and evolving circumstances, as well as anticipated plans as a result of the pending Families First Coronavirus Response Act. On March 14, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” (H.R. 6201), which provides for a limited period of paid sick leave and expands the Family Medical Leave Act to provide an extended period of unpaid or partially paid leave for a public health emergency. The bill is now before the Senate, where it is expected to pass sometime this week. The bill contains several provisions that will impact employers with fewer than 500 employees. Employers should not make any changes to their policies and procedures until the bill is finalized and enacted but should be aware that the law may require them to act soon. The following is a summary of the bill’s provisions relating to paid family medical leave and paid sick leave.

Paid Family Medical Leave

  • Eligible employees can take emergency FMLA leave to respond to quarantine requirements or recommendations, to care for family members who are responding to quarantine requirements or recommendations, and to care for children whose school has been closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • This Family Medical Leave Benefit will cover all employees, full-time or part-time, who have been working for at least 30 calendar days.
  • The bill provides 12 weeks of job-protected FMLA leave. However, the first 14 days may be unpaid. Employees may use accrued personal or sick leave during the first 14 days but are not required to do so. After the first 14 days, employers must compensate employees in an amount that is not less than two-thirds of the employee’s regular rate of pay.
  • The provisions will go into effect 15 days after the date of enactment and expire on December 31, 2020.

Paid Sick Leave

  • Employers with fewer than 500 employees will be required to provide full-time employees 80 hours of paid sick leave for specific circumstances related to COVID-19: (1) to self-isolate because employee is diagnosed with COVID-19; (2) to obtain a medical diagnosis or care if the employee is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19; (3) to comply with a public or a healthcare provider order or recommendation; (4) to care for the employee’s family member who is self-isolating because they are diagnosed or experiencing symptoms of COVID-19; (5) to care for a family member if a public official or a healthcare provider determines that the presence of the family member in the community would jeopardize the health of others; and (6) to care for the child of such employee if the school or child care has been closed due to COVID-19.
  • Part-time employees are entitled to the number of hours that the employee works, on average, over a two-week period.
  • The paid sick time should be available to all employees, no matter how long their tenure. Once the employee returns to work, the employer is not required to provide any further paid sick leave.
  • This leave is in addition to any paid sick leave available under existing policies, including state and local leave laws.
  • Employers will be required to post notices informing employees of their rights to leave.
  • The bill expressly provides that it does not preempt existing state or local paid sick leave entitlements.
  • The provisions will go into effect 15 days after the date of enactment and expire on December 31, 2020.

Given the evolving nature of this crisis, our advice is also evolving. For example, recently, we have been providing advice to clients as to communication strategies and necessary actions to take once a positive diagnosis becomes known. We have assisted clients in weighing their obligations to serve their customers/clients while at the same time protecting their employees. We have provided advice regarding furloughs, layoffs, and pay decreases. The circumstances we are presented with are continually evolving. The impact on our clients’ businesses is becoming much more serious. We are here to help as the coronavirus continues its offensive on our country.

If you have any questions or need assistance, please feel free to contact Christine A. Amalfe, Chair of the Gibbons Employment & Labor Law Department.

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