25

September, 2020

DOL Revises Regulations to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

By Alexandra Lapes and Tracey Levy

Effective as of September 16, 2020, the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued revised regulations to its temporary rule issued on April 1, 2020, implementing provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act’s (“FFCRA”) paid sick leave and paid family leave mandates, to clarify workers’ rights and employers’ responsibilities, after a United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (“District Court”) struck down several portions of the temporary rule as invalid on August 3, 2020.

Specifically, the District Court ruled four parts of the DOL’s temporary rule regarding the FFCRA paid leave provisions were invalid: (1) the requirement that paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave are available only if an employee has work available from which to take leave; (2) the requirement that an employee may take FFCRA leave intermittently only with employer approval; (3) the expanded definition of “health care provider” and whom an employer may exclude from being eligible for FFCRA leave; and (4) that employees who take FFCRA leave must provide their employers with certain documentation before taking leave. New York v. U.S. Dep’t of Labor, No. 20-CV-3020 (JPO), 2020 WL 4462260 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 3, 2020).

As previously reported in our Law Blog, the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (“EPSLA”) grants paid sick leave to employees who are unable to work or telework due to a need for leave because of any of six COVID-19-related criteria. Similarly, the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act (“EFMLEA”) applies to employees unable to work or telework due to a need for leave to care for a child due to a public health emergency.

The DOL’s revisions reaffirm and provide further explanation of the following:

• Employees may take FFCRA leave only if work would otherwise be available to them.
The DOL’s April 1, 2020 rule stated an employee was entitled to FFCRA leave only if the qualifying reason was the actual reason (or the but-for cause) why the employee was unable to work, and therefore did not apply if an employee was furloughed or was unable to work because an office was closed. The District Court held the work-availability requirement was invalid because the DOL had only explicitly applied it to three of the six qualifying reasons for FFCRA leave.

In response, the DOL has reiterated that an employee may take sick leave or expanded family and medical leave only to the extent that a qualifying reason is the sole (“but-for”) reason the employee is not working. The DOL extended that standard to all qualifying reasons for FFCRA leave. The DOL explained that removing the work-availability requirement would not serve the purpose of the FFCRA paid leave provisions, because if there is no work to perform, there would be no need to discourage potentially infected employees from coming to work. However, the DOL has made clear that there must be a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason why the employer does not have work for an employee to perform.

• Where intermittent FFCRA leave is permitted by the DOL’s regulations, an employee must obtain employer approval to take FFCRA leave intermittently.
The DOL also confirmed its original position that employer approval is needed to take intermittent FFCRA leave. The District Court had struck down the employer-approval requirement as not adequately explained, so the DOL responded by providing more of a rationale for this requirement.
Tackling anticipated confusion for employees who have children in school on a hybrid schedule, the DOL clarified that the employer-approval requirement does not apply to employees who take FFCRA leave to care for their children on remote learning days, provided the child is attending school on the days that the school is open to the child. For FFCRA purposes, the DOL has reasoned that, if the remote learning days are determined and directed by the school then each such day constitutes a separate qualifying event for FFCRA leave, and such absences are not deemed to be “intermittent”. Employer consent would still be required, though, if an employee’s child’s school is closed for multiple days, and the employee seeks to use FFCRA leave on only some of those days (an intermittent basis) while the school is closed.

Similarly, the DOL explained that an employee is not eligible for FFCRA leave if the employee elects remote schooling for the employee’s child when in-person attendance would otherwise be possible. However, if an employee’s child is under a quarantine order or has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine, then FFCRA leave would be available, and if the employee asks to use FFCRA leave on only select days that the child is quarantined at home, then employer approval would be required for the leave to be taken intermittently.

The DOL’s revisions also amend and clarify that:

• The definition of “healthcare provider” includes only employees who (1) meet the definition of that term under the FMLA regulations and (2) who are employed to provide diagnostic services, preventative services, treatment services or other services that are integrated with and necessary to the provision of patient care which, if not provided, would adversely impact patient care.
Under the FFCRA, employers are allowed to exclude employees who are “healthcare providers” from FFCRA leave coverage, recognizing these employees’ presence at work is essential in preventing disruptions to the health care system’s capacity to respond to COVID-19. The District Court struck down the DOL’s original definition of “healthcare provider” as being overly broad because it excluded employees in medical services who were not directly providing patient care. The DOL accordingly adopted a narrower definition of the term in the revised regulations that focuses on whether the employee is providing services that are integrated with and necessary for patient care.

• Employees must provide required documentation supporting their need for FFCRA leave to their employer as soon as practicable.
Under the FFCRA, employees are required to provide notice to receive paid sick leave after the first workday of leave, or for expanded family and medical leave, as soon as practicable, when the necessity for such leave is foreseeable. In the temporary rule issued by the DOL, it required this documentation be submitted “prior to” taking FFCRA leave, which the District Court held was inconsistent with the statute’s notice requirements. The DOL amended the new regulations to clarify that notice be provided as soon as practicable, which may be at the same time an employee requests leave, but the DOL recognized that is not necessarily always the case.

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21

May, 2020

Working Our Way to Normalcy: A Tri-State Guide to Reopening Your Business

By Tracey Levy and Alexandra Lapes

With the goal of getting employees back to work safely while ensuring business continuity, and in compliance with local, state, and federal laws, employers should consider the following key measures to take as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut permit more businesses to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1 – Closely follow your local reopening status and what level your business falls into within the phases of reopening

In New York State, Governor Cuomo issued the New York Forward plan, a guide to reopening businesses in New York, which outlines that businesses can reopen in phases based on each region meeting specific health metrics.  As of May 20, 2020, seven regions (Capital Region, Central New York, Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley, North Country, Southern Tier, and Western New York) are allowed to reopen and begin phase one of reopening.  See here for a breakdown of progress on the metrics by region.

Geographic region is only the first threshold in New York, as the state also is phasing reopening by industry.  The state provides a reopen “lookup tool,” where businesses in specific industries can determine whether they are eligible to reopen.   In order to operate, employers must comply with all safety guidelines for their particular industry.  All New York employers (including essential businesses) must also, as a condition of being open:

    1. affirm that they have read and understand their obligations to operate in compliance with New York State guidance – and submit that affirmation of compliance online; and
    2. develop a business safety plan, for which the state has issued a business safety plan template. While the business safety plan does not need to be submitted to the state, it must be posted in a conspicuous location in the workplace and made available to the state Department of Health or local health or safety authorities in the event of an inspection.

The reopening lookup tool contains specific guidance for certain industries, and covered employers must also affirm compliance with those industry-specific standards.

Employers should consult the NY Forward website at www.forward.ny.gov  and applicable Executive Orders at www.governor.ny.gov/executiveorders  periodically or whenever notified of the availability of new guidance.  Employers can also visit Empire State Development’s website for frequently asked questions on how the New York Forward reopening plan impacts their business.

For New Jersey employers, on May 18, 2020, Governor Murphy announced a six-principle plan to restart New Jersey’s economy.  While New Jersey’s stay-at-home order is still in effect until further notice, the Governor announced New Jersey is in phase one of the six-principle plan but stated that a coronavirus vaccine must be widely available before New Jersey fully reopens to the “new normal.” New Jersey created a reference tool for local establishments that are open and cooperating with state guidelines, see here.

Connecticut is also taking a gradual approach, which began May 20, 2020, for those businesses that see a sustained 14-day decline in hospitalizations, have the adequate testing capacity, have a contact tracing system in place, and have procured sufficient personal protective equipment (“PPE”). Businesses eligible to reopen as of May 20 are:

  • Restaurants (outdoor only, no bar areas);
  • Offices (continue WFH where possible);
  • Museums, zoos (outdoor only);
  • Remaining retail;
  • Outdoor recreation;
  • Personal services (hair); and
  • University research.

They join already open businesses such as manufacturing, construction, real estate, utilities, essential retail, childcare, and hospitals.  Industry-specific guidelines for reopening are available here.  All businesses must self-certify online prior to opening that they are complying with safety measures.  Connecticut’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” and all other related safety measures otherwise remain in effect, with all nonessential workers directed to work from home, and social and recreational gatherings of more than five people prohibited. To stay up-to-date on Connecticut’s guidance to reopen see here, and for answers to frequently asked questions, see here.

Additional resources are available for safety information, and guidelines at:

2 – Prepare your workplace and take necessary protective measures

All businesses should take proactive measures to ease employees’ fears of returning to work and communicate new policies, procedures, and practices specific to their workplace.  While every workplace will differ, consider the following proactive measures:

  • Prepare a workplace safety plan in compliance with federal, state, and local law. A workplace safety plan should address how the business plans to:
    • physically distance employees to ensure six feet between personnel, including limiting in-person gatherings, posting social distance markers using tape in common areas, limiting in-person meetings as much as possible and holding essential meetings in well-ventilated and well-spaced locations, limiting contact with customers, and considering shift changes or alternating lunch breaks if appropriate to the industry or business; and
    • implement protective measures for employees, including health screening before employees can return to work and subsequent daily health assessments, an exposure-response plan, maintaining adequate supply of face coverings for employees, complying with CDC hygiene and sanitation requirements with a log of who will be cleaning what and the date/time/scope of cleaning, providing hand sanitizers, soap, and paper towels to employees and those entering the workplace, and having a plan for cleaning, disinfecting, and contact tracing in the event an employee tests positive for COVID-19.
  • Communicate the safety plan to all employees. Through signage, advance communications, and ongoing training, ensure all employees and visitors in the workplace are aware of the organization’s social distance and safety protocols.

3 – Determine whether employees are eligible for modified work arrangements or accommodations, FFCRA leave, or other benefits and apply and redefine your policies fairly

Employers should review their workplace policies and update them as appropriate to address COVID-19 related personnel issues such as leave entitlements, teleworking or flexible work arrangements, the continuation of benefits, and accommodations for vulnerable employees.  In addition to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act leave, which remains in effect for covered employers until December 31, 2020, employees in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut may also be entitled to paid sick leave for COVID-19 related reasons.  See our recent issue of Takeaways and prior HR Strategy blog postings for more information on state-specific COVID-19 leave entitlements.

When restoring employees to work, employers should develop a methodology that applies consistent and nondiscriminatory criteria to determine the rehire order.  Be sure to notify state unemployment agencies of recalled workers, whether rehired or not, as employees forfeit their eligibility for continued unemployment benefits if they decline an offer of reinstatement because they are making more from unemployment.

Some employees who fall into a high-risk category for COVID-19 may request to remain on leave or continue working remotely as a reasonable accommodation.  Employers need to give such requests due consideration, as with any other accommodation request.

4 – Check for additional guidance and shifting requirements

These remain primarily unprecedented times, and the legal landscape for employers is shifting continuously.  Checking the available government links periodically is prudent, and employers should consider getting legal advice before taking employment actions.

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