17

March, 2021

ARPA Offers Financial Relief for Employers Facing NYS’s Latest COVID-19 Vaccine/Sick Leave Mandates

By Tracey I. Levy

New York State employers face yet another payroll cost challenge as the state has now mandated, as of March 12, 2021, that employees be granted up to four hours of paid leave (separate from all existing paid time off benefits) for purposes of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.  This is in addition to the state’s mandates for employers to provide up to three two-week intervals of COVID-19 sick leave, at least a portion of which must be paid by all but the smallest employers, as we have discussed in prior blog articles.

Fortunately, among the financial benefits included in the new American Rescue Plan Act (“ARPA”) are several provisions that are particularly helpful to New York State employers struggling to comply with the state’s unfunded COVID-19-related paid leave mandates.  While not mandatory, ARPA authorizes employers to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for qualifying wages paid to employees for leave taken under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”).  ARPA expands the list of FFCRA-qualifying leaves, and it extends the FFCRA leave eligibility period.

Expansion of FFCRA Leave

The FFCRA was originally designed to provide employees with up to 10 days of paid sick leave for six qualifying reasons: (i) inability to work due to a government-issued quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19; (ii) inability to work due to quarantine or isolation on advice of a health care provider related to COVID-19; (iii) if the employee was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis; (iv) if an employee was caring for someone subject to quarantine for COVID-19; (v) to care for a child whose school or childcare center was closed for COVID-related reasons; and (vi) if an employee was experiencing substantially similar conditions as specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

ARPA expands that list to permit FFCRA paid sick leave for three additional reasons:

  • to take time off to get a vaccine;
  • to recover from illness or injury related to the vaccine; or
  • while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test or diagnosis because the employer requested that the employee be tested or because the employee was exposed to someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.

The FFCRA originally offered an additional benefit of 12 weeks of Emergency FMLA leave (under the Emergency Family Medical Leave Expansion Act), which comprised two weeks of unpaid, and 10 weeks of paid, leave at two-thirds of the employee’s salary, up to $200 per day.  EFMLA leave was available, however, solely for reason “v” as listed above – to care for a child whose school or childcare center was closed for COVID-related reasons.  ARPA now expands eligibility for EFMLA leave to all nine of the qualifying reasons specified above.   ARPA also increases the paid component so that an employee can receive partial salary for all 12 weeks of the leave period.

Extension of FFCRA Leave

In addition to expanding the qualifying reasons for FFCRA leave, ARPA extends the period in which an employee can qualify for the leave through September 30, 2021.  ARPA also resets the clock on the 10-day cap on eligible COVID-related sick leave as of April 1, 2021, so that employees who have already taken FFCRA qualifying paid sick leave since the start of the pandemic can take up to 10 additional days of leave for a qualifying reason subsequent to April 1, 2021.

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12

February, 2021

NYC Upends Employment at Will – Revolutionary Change in the Fundamentals of US Employment Law

By Tracey I. Levy

Employment “at will” — the ability to fire an individual for any reason or no reason at all and the individual’s right to quit at any time — has been the bedrock principle of the employment relationship in the United States throughout its history.  Collective bargaining agreements modify that relationship, contractually, in the union context.  Individual employment agreements may similarly include contractual limitations on the employment at will doctrine.  Employment laws modify employment at will by precluding employers from terminating an individual for a discriminatory, retaliatory, or similarly unlawful reason.

But now New York City has gone one step further and abolished the concept of employment at will in its entirety in the discretely targeted area of the fast food industry (defined as fast food chains with 30 or more operating establishments nationally).  While the law thereby will have limited application in its current form, the radical shift that the New York City law presents cannot be understated.  We are unaware of any other state, city or locality that has superseded the principle of employment at will for an entire industry, thereby requiring private employers to demonstrate “just cause” before taking any significant, adverse employment action against an individual employee.

New York City’s new law expands on prior restrictions requiring “predictive scheduling” for hourly fast food workers to now provide that, absent “just cause” or a “bona fide economic reason,” once such employees successfully complete a 30-day probationary period they cannot be “discharged”, which means not only that they cannot be fired, but that they cannot be suspended indefinitely, laid off, or subjected to more than a 15% reduction in their scheduled work hours.  While “discharged” is thus defined quite broadly, the new law defines “just cause” quite narrowly, as an employee’s “failure to satisfactorily perform job duties or misconduct that is demonstrably and materially harmful to the fast food employer’s legitimate business interests.”  The law then builds on that definition to provide that, absent “egregious” behavior, the just cause standard cannot be satisfied unless the employer already has in place a written progressive discipline policy that was provided to the employee, and the employer followed its progressive discipline process.  Disciplinary actions taken more than a year prior to the discharge effectively expire, as the law says they cannot be considered part of the progressive discipline process.  Finally, employers need to be careful with their documentation, as they must provide the impacted employee with a written explanation of the precise reason for discharge within five days, and they effectively waive the right to later defend their action based on any reason that is not included in that written explanation.

To assert that termination was due to a “bona fide economic reason,” the employer must show through its business records that, in response to reduced production volume, sales or profit, it needs to fully or partially close its operations or make technological or organizational changes.  When invoking this standard as a reason for discharge, employees must be let go in reverse order of seniority, so that the longest tenured employees are the last to go and the first to be rehired.  For a twelve-month period following such a discharge, the employer has to make “reasonable efforts” to reinstate former employees before it can offer shifts to other employees or hire anyone new.

Employees are entitled to reinstatement if they are found to have been discharged without just cause, plus the employer must bear the cost of the employee’s reasonable attorneys’ fees and may be liable for back pay and punitive damages.  As a further penalty, the employer will be liable for schedule change premiums, as provided under the existing predictive scheduling law, for each shift the employee loses as a result of having been discharged without just cause.  Alternatively, the law makes arbitration available as an option to employees, beginning in January 2022, and provides that a losing employer must reimburse the city for the cost of the arbitration.

The broad definition of “discharge”; narrow definition of “just cause”; precise policy, notice and documentation requirements; and heavy financial costs imposed on a losing employer collectively provide fast food employees with unprecedented job protection, likely greater than that provided anywhere else in the country.  Even well-intentioned employers that are indisputably contending with employees presenting persistent attendance issues, repeated underperformance, or offensive behavior may find themselves tripped up by the procedural requirements of the law, particularly the five-day window to thoroughly document the precise reason for discharge.  Similarly, by defining a work schedule reduction of more than 15% as a “discharge”, the new law brings the full weight of the documentation and enforcement provisions down on employers endeavoring to adjust work schedules to meet business needs.

Finally, the law’s recognition of seniority as the sole basis for determining employee selections in the event of a downsizing or restructuring deprives employers of necessary flexibility in making selection decisions.  The longest tenure does not consistently equate with the best performance and skillset, yet the law fails to recognize the relevance or legitimacy of those factors in reviving a struggling business.

While the applicability of this law is limited to a discrete industry, its import is manifold greater.  Government-mandated paid sick leave was unheard of in the private sector when it was adopted by San Francisco in early 2007, and in the subsequent 14 years such laws have proliferated to 13 states, the District of Columbia, and discrete localities in at least five other states.  The precedent has been set, and absent responsive action by the business community, it may not be long before employment at will fades away as past history.

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12

February, 2021

Employers Keep Getting Pounded: TAKEAWAYS for Winter 2020/21

We invite New York, New Jersey and Connecticut employers to view the latest issue of  Takeaways, our quarterly newsletter covering the most recent employment law changes.  For winter 2020/21, those include:

  • expansive protections of New York City job applicants and employees based on criminal history;
  • radical change in the employment relationship for fast food workers in New York City (also see our separate blog posting on that);
  • the most current minimum wage rates for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut;
  • the latest federal guidance on vaccinations, testing and workplace protections related to COVID-19
  • modified workplace posting standards;
  • a New York State law change on WARN Act notices and new interpretation of COVID-19 leave requirements; and
  • recent appellate court decisions on wage and hour issues in New York and New Jersey.
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26

January, 2021

NYS Employers Required to Provide Multiple Rounds of COVID-19 Paid Sick Leave

By Tracey I. Levy

Employers in New York State may have to pay employees at full salary for more than six weeks of COVID-19 leave (in addition to all other paid leave benefits offered by the employer or mandated by law) under new guidance issued by the New York State Department of Labor (“NYS DOL”) on January 20, 2021.  This is precisely the position that we flagged as a troubling open issue in our prior blog posting, Extension of FFCRA Credit Helps NYS Employers.

The NYS DOL guidance provides that if an employee who returns to work following a period of quarantine or isolation subsequently tests positive for COVID-19, the employee must submit proof of the positive test result and is not allowed to come to work.  Rather, the employee is deemed to be subject to a new mandatory order of isolation and is entitled to New York State’s paid COVID-19 leave law, irrespective of whether the employee already received a full two weeks of paid COVID-19 leave for the prior quarantine.  Similarly, if an employee has been out on COVID-19 leave due to a quarantine or isolation order and continues to test positive for COVID-19 after the end of the quarantine or isolation period, the employee cannot come to work.  Instead, upon proof of the positive test result, the employee is entitled to an additional period of COVID-19 paid leave.

In addition, if an employer mandates that an employee who is not otherwise subject to a quarantine or isolation order remain out of work due to actual or potential exposure to COVID-19 (from any source), then the employer has to continue to pay the employee’s regular salary for so long as the employer requires the employee to stay away from work or until such time as the employee actually becomes subject to a mandatory or precautionary order of quarantine or isolation.  If and when the employee is subject to a quarantine/isolation order, the clock will then begin running on the mandatory New York COVID-19 sick leave period, but the period of paid leave preceding issuance of the order will not count as part of the two-week COVID-19-leave period.

The one concession to employers offered by the new guidance is that they need not endure more than three rounds of paying COVID-19 sick leave for a quarantined employee.  Also, while the first COVID-19 paid sick leave period may arise based on the employee being subject to a COVID-19-related quarantine or isolation order for any reason, the second and third rounds must be predicated on the employee personally testing positive for COVID-19.

Employers have limited options under this new guidance.  Some attorneys have suggested that the guidance (which does not have the same force as a regulation) is subject to challenge on the grounds that it exceeds the scope of the law.  Short of commencing litigation, employers can bear the cost of the more expansively-interpreted law and look to the FFCRA tax credit to offset the costs of each employee’s first round of New York State COVID-19 paid leave.  While the tax credit is set to expire March 31, 2021, it may be extended as part of the latest federal COVID-19 relief legislation.  Notably, New York State’s COVID-19 leave is not available if an employee is able to work remotely, so employers should maximize that opportunity whenever an employee is quarantined but either has not tested positive or is experiencing few symptoms and feels well enough to work.

One other option for employers that are really struggling financially at this time may be to suspend or temporarily reduce vacation or other paid time off benefits for the duration of the pandemic so as to offset the employers’ salary continuation obligations under the COVID-19 leave law.  In most non-union situations, New York State employers are able to modify their paid time off policies at any time, provided employees continue to receive the leave time to which they are entitled by law.  Vacation and extended PTO days fall outside those statutory requirements, and employers generally have flexibility to modify those policies.  It is advisable, though, to consider the  resulting impact to employee morale, and to consult legal counsel before making any such modifications in this context.

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17

January, 2021

Paternalism in the Age of COVID-19 Can Trip Up Well-Meaning Employers

By Tracey I. Levy

Employers are authorized, and to some degree required, to intrude into their employees’ personal lives and health issues as a screening tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace.  It is critical to remember, however, that the inquiries employers may currently be posing with regard to employees’ recent travel activity, physical health, and contacts with others represent a very limited exception to the general principle that employees in the U.S. are legally entitled to keep their health information private from their employers and to maintain autonomy over their engagement in lawful activities on their personal time.  Well-meaning employers, concerned for their employees’ welfare, may unwittingly run afoul of federal, state or local laws if they probe unnecessarily into the activities of their employees or place restrictions on where and when employees can work.

 

Reporting Positive COVID-19 Results

One issue that may trip up employers is requiring remote workers to report if they have tested positive for COVID-19 or are experiencing any COVID-like symptoms.  These are precisely the inquiries that employers can pose when screening employees who are physically coming into the workplace and will thereby be in contact with other individuals.  But the same questions are not permissible with regard to remote workers.  Guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and New York City make clear that an employee who is working remotely and has not had in-person contact with colleagues or customers has no obligation to notify the employer of a positive COVID-19 test result or if they are experiencing COVID-like symptoms.

 

Working While Under Quarantine

Employees in New York who are under a quarantine or isolation order are not eligible for New York State COVID-19 leave if they are still able to work remotely while under quarantine.  If an employee has been quarantined because the employee has personally contracted COVID-19, New York City has issued testing guidance that if the employee can work remotely from home and feels well enough to do so, the employee need not take time off.  The guidance does not authorize employers (no matter how well-meaning) to preclude an employee who is able to work remotely from doing so just because the employee is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

 

Higher-Risk Individuals in the Workplace

The EEOC and the New York City Commission on Human Rights have both issued guidance that policies intended to be benevolent, that prohibit older workers from returning to the workplace because their age places them at a higher health risk if they contract COVID-19, are legally impermissible.  The same is true, according to the EEOC guidance, for removing pregnant or disabled employees from the workplace during the pandemic.  Employers must consider remote work requests from pregnant and/or disabled employees as a reasonable accommodation, but if no such request has been made, then the employer cannot mandate a telework arrangement based solely on an employee’s pregnancy, nor can an employer impose such a mandate with regard to an individual with a disability other than in extremely narrow circumstances where the employee’s presence in the workplace is found to present a “significant risk of substantial harm” to the employee and no other accommodation would suffice.

 

Accommodating Older Individuals to Keep Them Safe

New York City employers also can create issues for themselves if they authorize employees to work from home based solely on their age, or provide greater pandemic protective measures in the workplace just for older employees.  Employees, of any age, with underlying health conditions, may be entitled to work remotely as a reasonable accommodation for a disability.  Where the employee is not asserting any risk factor other than age, the NYC Commission on Human Rights has taken the position that the employer must treat all employees the same regardless of age.  The employer is not legally required to accommodate such individuals with remote work or additional precautionary measures, but if it chooses to do so then the option must be made available in an age-neutral manner.

 

Getting the All Clear from the Doctor

Finally, employers that want to be sure an employee really is well enough to return to work after contracting COVID-19 should restrain their instinct to require medical documentation.  Per CDC guidance, employers should not require a COVID-19 test result or a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave, or to return to work. The CDC states requiring a negative COVID-19 test result also is not an appropriate criterion for such employees to return to work, as many people test positive long after the infectious period has ended.

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