29

August, 2022

Unlimited Time Off Presents Hidden Challenges for Employers

I have increasingly been fielding inquiries from organizations that are looking to implement some version of unlimited time off for their employees. They saw that employees continued to be productive while working remotely during the pandemic, and they want to give them the flexibility to take time off as/when needed – provided the work still gets done. The motives behind these policies are commendable, but the challenge lies in their implementation.

Consider Scope as to Legally Required Time Off
Employers currently face a myriad of paid leave requirements, which vary by state and locality. These laws may mandate paid time for sick leave, domestic violence victims, care of family members, voting, jury service, witness duty, blood donation, bone marrow donation, attending school meetings and activities, public health emergencies, bereavement, or for no specific reason at all. When considering an unlimited time off policy, employers need to determine whether the policy is intended to cover some or all of these paid time off legal requirements.

Employers are also required in various locations to provide a range of unpaid time off, which may include family and medical leave, pregnancy disability leave, military leave, family military leave, leave for first responders, leave for crime victims, and lengthier leave for jury service. Some states offer partial compensation through state-regulated programs for certain periods of unpaid leave. In most circumstances, even the biggest proponents of unlimited paid time off do not intend to pay for the time used during most or all of these leave periods, particularly not for legally required leaves that can extend for months at a time. The scope of the unlimited time off policy in relation to legally required leaves needs to be determined in advance so that policies can be properly drafted.

Is This Just for the Employee’s Self-Care, or Family Too?
Also when considering scope, employers should determine whether they want unlimited paid time to be available for care of family members. Employers may intend for the unlimited paid time to cover employees who are themselves ill or injured, even for extended periods of time, and they can cap their payroll exposure by requiring qualifying employees to apply for short-term and long-term disability benefits for more extended absences. However, most paid sick leave laws are not limited to leave for the employee’s own illness or injury. The sick leave laws extend to family members – often spanning multiple generations and even individuals who are “like” family but with no blood or marital relationship.

Granting unlimited paid time off to care for family members can quickly leave an employer in an awkward situation of trying to balance its broad policy offering, the statutory protections that cover at least part of the leave time, and the need to have the employee get work done. Some employers address this by carving out care of family from their “unlimited” time off policies. They may choose to grant only the legally required leave for care of these individuals, or may provide a benefit that is more generous than the law, but less than “unlimited.” Other employers reframe the unlimited time off policy as intended for discretionary and personal reasons, akin to a combination of vacation, personal days and flexible holidays, and maintain a separate, statutory-compliant paid sick and safe leave policy that caps the amount of time employees can use for their own or a family member’s illness, injury or related medical or safety reasons.

Consider Approvals and Documentation
The temptation and appeal of an unlimited policy is to be free from all the legal mandates related to time off policies. Senior leaders just want employees to be “responsible adults,” take the time they need and make sure they do their jobs.

The reality is that reasonable minds will differ as to when an employee is acting responsibly when determining when and for how long to take off from work. “Unlimited” time does not relieve managers of the responsibility to manage their employees.

While requesting medical or other documentation in support of a time off request may seem superfluous if the time off is “unlimited,” such documentation can be critical to ensure that, when time is being taken for legally protected reasons, it is given appropriate consideration. And when time is being taken “just because,” managers should have greater flexibility to advise employees if the scheduling of that time off would be contrary to business needs, and delay or deny those requests.

Spell It All Out in Writing
An unlimited paid time off policy must address all the above considerations and the parameters that the employer has chosen to set with regard to the scope, use, timing, and ancillary requirements under its policy. To the extent that paid or unpaid leave laws may require specific language or provisions to be included, that too should be folded into the unlimited time off policy – if the leave law is intended to be satisfied through the unlimited paid time off policy. And if the legally protected leave is being carved out as an exception to “unlimited” paid time off, then that needs to be made clear in the written policies as well.

Finally, in those locations where paid sick leave and other specific time off accruals and usage need to be reflected on pay stubs or elsewhere, employers should consult with legal counsel and their payroll provider as to where and how accruals should be reflected. Some jurisdictions have held that no accruals need to be posted when a policy grants unlimited time, while other jurisdictions have been less clear on how that notice requirement is to be satisfied.

Keep Perspective
Legislators mean well when they adopt new paid and unpaid leave requirements. But these laws are often written from the perspective of protecting employees from miserly employers. They can feel unduly constricting to generous employers that want to give employees time to relax and manage their personal obligations, but do not want to run afoul of the law.

Some version of “unlimited” time off is achievable even in the most regulated localities. The policies just need to be thought through in advance, in the context of applicable leave laws, and drafted to cover the relevant parameters. This is one of those situations in which it would be prudent to seek guidance from legal counsel.

By Tracey I. Levy

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25

July, 2022

CTFMLA Notice to Employees Is Overdue, Employers Need to Update Policies

Connecticut employers sorting through the complexities of the amended Connecticut Family and Medical Leave Act (CTFMLA) and Connecticut Paid Leave Act (CTPL) need to ensure they are providing all new hires with the requisite notice, which explains CTFMLA entitlements, employee obligations, the prohibitions against retaliation, and the procedures to file complaints with the Labor Department for alleged violations.  This is a new requirement, effective as of July 1, 2022.

Employers additionally have an ongoing obligation to provide employees with notice of their rights under CTFMLA and CTPL on an annual basis.  Employers may wish to update their employee handbooks to include the notice provisions.  While not yet final, pending regulations proposed by the Department of Labor indicate that such a handbook update will satisfy the annual notice requirement.  Also, FAQs issued by the Department of Labor include this recommendation.

Expanded Reasons for Leave

CTFMLA and CTPL collectively provide eligible employees with job-protected leave and income replacement while the employee:

  • recovers from or cares for a family member with a serious health condition;
  • bonds with a child newly added to the family;
  • serves as an organ or bone marrow donor;
  • addresses qualifying exigencies related to a close family member’s military service; or
  • cares for a close family member who is seriously ill or injured while on active duty in the armed forces.

CTFMLA provides the job-protected leave entitlement, while CTPL is an income replacement program.  CTPL is additionally available for employees who have been impacted by family violence, and in that context the employee’s ability to take the leave is protected under the Connecticut Family Violence Leave Act.

Other CTFMLA Provisions Also Expanded

Employers should note that these laws are newly effective as of January 1, 2022.  They alter and expand employers’ prior CTFMLA obligations and add a new layer of paid leave.  Employers that were familiar with and meeting the prior CTFMLA requirements must ensure that they have updated their policies and practices to reflect the changes to the law – which expand the uses of CTFMLA, and shift from a schedule of leave taken over a 24-month period to a program of up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave over a 12-month period (thereby more closely mirroring the federal FMLA).  The new CTFMLA further grants employees who are incapacitated due to pregnancy an additional two weeks (14 in total) of job-protected leave, and again mirrors the federal FMLA in that it provides employees who are caring for a covered service member with up to 26 weeks of job-protected leave in a 12-month period.  Another key change under the new version of the CTFMLA is that, while employers can require employees to use their accrued, paid time off during their leave period, employees can exempt from that requirement and preserve up to two weeks of their paid time off to be used for other purposes.

By Tracey I. Levy

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27

April, 2022

Maine as National Example Disappoints Employers with Newest Law on Paid Time Off

By Tracey I. Levy

A plethora of paid leave laws currently plague multi-jurisdiction employers and they seem to multiply with each passing year. The concept of paid sick leave, which originated in San Francisco in 2007, has spread to 16 states and at least 25 localities across the country.

Sick Leave Isn’t Just for Being Sick, And Other Complications

“Sick” leave as defined by many of these laws is a far cry from typical employer policies in that usage often extends beyond an employee’s own illness and injury to include:

  • routine well visits for medical care;
  • care of an employee’s family member (in the broadest sense);
  • “safe” time for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or similar crimes; and
  • coverage when a school, childcare center or place of employment is closed due to a public health emergency.

Particularly challenging for employers are the differences between the laws, in terms of leave time granted, permitted uses, accruals, carryover and requisite notice. So while the laws consistently state that an employer can maintain its own sick leave policy provided it meets all the elements of the legally-mandated sick leave, the varying requirements collectively make it nearly impossible to have one fully-compliant one-size-fits-all policy.

Maine Approached It Differently

Enter Maine with its paid personal leave law. It was refreshing in its simplicity.  Rather than adding an ever more expansive list of reasons why employees could use paid leave, the Maine law says the reason is irrelevant.  If you have more than 10 employees, full-time, part-time or otherwise, then you must provide them with up to 40 hours of paid leave, per year, for any purpose, provided they give reasonable notice. While there surely are employers of that size who do not already provide 5 days of paid time off per year, a great many provide that much or more. For those with existing paid time off policies, tailoring those policies to comply with the new Maine law should be relatively easy.

The only element of the law that deviates from typical employer practice (but aligns with most of the paid sick leave laws), is that employees need to be able to carryover up to 40 hours of accrued, unused paid leave from one calendar year to the next. When not subject to legal mandates, private sector employers typically restrict carryover of paid time off to a fixed number of days and require that the carryover days be used within a duration of three to six months into the new year. Employers may incur a cost when carryover is mandated, in that accrued days may need to be reflected as a pending liability in their business records.  Employers are therefore disinclined to allow too much in the way of carryover. While the Maine carryover mandate may require employers to modify their vacation or other paid time off policies, overall the law is simpler than the approach taken in other states and localities.

And Then Maine Complicated Things

But now, things have changed a bit.  Maine’s governor just signed a new law, which takes effect January 1, 2023, that amends the state’s wage statute to require employers to pay out employees for accrued, unused vacation upon termination.  Other states, like Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Illinois, have similar legal requirements, which thereby discourage employers from granting vacation time in a lump sum at the outset of the year, and deny employees the flexibility that comes with front-loaded vacation time.

Lesson for Legislators

Adopting ever more prescriptive paid time off laws sows confusion and impedes uniformity in approach for multi-jurisdiction employers.  As Maine demonstrated with its 2021 paid personal leave law, states can achieve the overarching goal of granting employees the assurance of paid days off to manage their personal lives, while minimizing the strictures that impede employers’ ability to draft consistent policies and manage their workforce.

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20

March, 2022

COVID Mandates Have Lessened But Employers Still Have Obligations

By Alexandra Lapes and Tracey I. Levy

New York State employers may now suspend implementation of their infectious disease prevention plans (otherwise known as HERO Act plains), as the state’s order designating COVID-19 as a highly contagious communicable disease expired on March 17, 2022 and thus far has not been extended.  As COVID-related mandates have largely been lifted or expired across the tri-state, employers are once again left in a state of uncertainty – after two years of massive regulations, what is still required and where do employers have discretion to act independently in responding to the pandemic?  The short answer is that it varies, and we have endeavored to summarize the current state as of March 2022.

COVID-Related Restrictions and Current Effect

CDC Guidelines Applicable Throughout the County

The CDC continues to require individuals who are two and older to wear a face mask on public transportation and conveyances such as trains and airplane.  Outside that context, the CDC maintains its distinction between those who are and those who are not vaccinated, and recommends that unvaccinated people continue to wear a face mask at public events and gatherings around other people.

New York State and New York City

Masks are no longer mandatory in most settings

Effective as of February 10, 2022, Governor Hochul lifted the indoor mask-or-vaccine mandate for all private sector employers in New York State.  As a result, most employers now have discretion as to whether and when to require face coverings.  However, in addition to the CDC mandate for public transportation, masks are still required for certain high-density and particularly vulnerable settings, including all health care settings regulated by the Department of Health and other related state agencies, nursing homes, adult care facilities, correctional facilities, detention centers, homeless shelters, and domestic violence shelters, public transit and transportation hubs.

NYC customers need no longer prove vaccination status, but proof is still required for employees

New York City suspended the “Key to NYC” mandate as of March 7, 2022, that had required businesses to verify vaccination status as a condition of entry to indoor dining, fitness, and entertainment venues in the city.  However, through a new Mayoral Executive Order issued on March 4, 2022 and ongoing requirements by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), all employees who work in-person in New York City – for every type of employer – must provide or have provided proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to their employers.  Employers must exclude from the workplace any worker who has not provided such proof, unless an exception due to a religious or medical accommodation applies, or a worker only enters the workplace for a quick and limited purpose.

In addition to the vaccination requirement, New York City employers currently must continue to:

  • Post an official DOHMH sign in a conspicuous location at the business; and
  • Keep a record of each worker’s proof of vaccination (including ensuring employees get their second dose) and any reasonable accommodations.

Employers who previously posted a notice per the Key to NYC requirements do not need to post the DOHMH attestation sign.

New Jersey and Connecticut – Reprieve from Face Coverings

For New Jersey employers, as of March 7, 2022, the statewide mask mandate has been lifted, as the Governor signed an executive order withdrawing the declaration of COVID-19 as a public health emergency.

For most employers in Connecticut, all business sector rules enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were lifted as of May 19, 2021, with limited exceptions where face coverings were still required.  Those exceptions are still in effect in accordance with the latest order issued by the Connecticut Public Health Commissioner effective February 28, 2022, and face masks are therefore still required in schools, healthcare settings, and shelters.

Ongoing COVID Leave Obligations

Employers in New York State, New York City, and New Jersey must be aware of continuing COVID leave obligations, particularly concerning paid sick leaves, that remain in effect.  We have broken down the key pieces of COVID-related leave provisions effective in the tri-state area below.

For more information regarding NY and NJ on-going pandemic-related paid leave provisions see this blog article, and the series of COVID-19 leave articles on our blog.

Stay Informed

The news is swirling with reports of new COVID-19 variants developing, some of which may trigger future restrictions.  Therefore it is prudent for employers to continue to monitor for further updates.  We have provided links below for current standards issued at the federal, state and local levels impacting employers in the New York tri-state area.

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4

February, 2022

Wait, I Have to Pay Employees for Separate COVID Leave?

By Alexandra Lapes and Tracey I. Levy

Employers in New York State, New York City, and New Jersey must be aware of continuing COVID leave obligations, particularly concerning paid sick leave, that remain in effect despite the expiration of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which had provided a tax credit to offset the cost of paid time off in these circumstances.

New York State COVID-Related Leave is Ongoing

In addition to any other type of paid or unpaid time off that an employer may offer under its policies or to comply with legal requirements, New York State employers must continue to provide time off for COVID-related reasons, such as for employees who need to take leave because they are under a mandatory or precautionary order of quarantine or isolation due to COVID-19.  New York’s separate COVID-19 sick leave has no expiration date, and as employers are slowly discovering, that means these obligations are long-lasting.

As we noted previously in a series of COVID-19 leave articles on our blog, for many employers COVID-19 sick leave must be paid, depending on the size and net income of the employer.  By way of recap, employers’ obligations for COVID-19 sick leave are determined by the number of employees as of January 1, 2020, and provide for leave as follows:

  • If the employer has 10 or less employees and a net income less than $1 million – provide unpaid job-protected leave until the termination of the order of quarantine or isolation;
  • For all other employers with 99 or fewer employees – provide at least 5 days of paid job-protected leave and additional job-protected unpaid leave until the termination of the order of quarantine or isolation; and
  • If the employer has 100 or more employees – provide 14 days of paid job-protected leave during the order of quarantine or isolation.

New York State provides no reimbursement or subsidy to employers for the paid sick leave benefits required under the law.  Notably, however, employees are not eligible for paid COVID-19 sick leave if they are able to work remotely.

NY Employees Can Take Paid COVID Leave Three Times in the Same Year

Employers in New York State are required to provide COVID-19 sick leave benefits as described above for up to three periods of covered leave per employee. However, the second and third periods of leave must be for a quarantine based on the employee’s own condition and not merely as a precaution due to exposure to others who tested position for COVID-19.

NYS STD/PFL Benefits Are Also Available for COVID-Related Reasons

New York State Short-Term Disability (STD) and Paid Family Leave (PFL) benefits are available simultaneously, with no waiting period, to employees of small and medium employers for the otherwise unpaid portion of a period of leave based on being personally subject to a government-issued quarantine or isolation order.  In other words, employers that are not required to provide more than five days of paid COVID-19 sick leave should direct their employees to apply to the state’s STD/PFL programs for paid benefits for the duration of their quarantine or isolation period.

PFL also is available for an employee to care for a child for the duration of a quarantine or isolation period, and for up to 12 weeks of leave per year for care of a family member who is sick with COVID-19 where the family member’s sickness meets the PFL definition of a serious health condition.

NY Requires Additional Paid Time Off for Vaccinations

Employers in New York State are required to grant employees up to four hours of paid time off for each shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.  Leave for vaccination must be paid at an employee’s regular rate of pay and is in addition to all other paid leaves provided by the employer.  This particular mandate of paid leave for vaccination only applies to vaccinations after its March 12, 2021 effective date, and the law is set to expire by the end of 2022.

New York City added still another paid leave obligation, and it requires employers to provide paid time off for employees’ children to be vaccinated.  Employees can use up to four hours of additional paid sick time, per child, per injection, for the vaccination itself and for care due to temporary side effects.

New Jersey Employers Have Ongoing COVID-Related Leave Requirements

New Jersey requires employers to provide paid leave under the state’s expanded New Jersey Earned Sick and Safe Leave Law (NJESSL), and this obligation is ongoing.  In addition, COVID-19 leave benefits made available to employees through New Jersey’s Family Leave Act (NJFLA) and Temporary Disability Benefits Law (NJTDBL) program remain in effect indefinitely.  While expanded in specific response to COVID-19, these amendments all turn more broadly on the declaration of a state of emergency by the governor due to an epidemic or public health emergency, and directives that an employee or the employee’s family member quarantine or isolate as a result of exposure to a communicable disease.

Notably, New Jersey expanded only the reasons why employees may qualify for NJESSL and the state’s leave benefit programs; it did not add any additional paid or unpaid leave entitlements.  Also, and perhaps for this reason, employees who are able to work remotely while subject to a quarantine order may still be eligible for these New Jersey COVID-related leave benefits, as the New Jersey law does not expressly preclude those employees from taking NJESSL for COVID-related reasons.

NJESSL Extends to Time Getting Vaccinated

The New Jersey Department of Labor has declared that employees are entitled to use NJESSL to get the COVID-19 vaccine, including travel time and recovery from side effects.  The Department created this memo for employees to provide to their employer regarding their additional rights to paid sick leave under NJESSL for COVID-19 vaccine leave, as vaccination is not listed as a reason for time off under the NJESSL law.

Takeaways

As the threat of COVID-19 persists for a third year and new variants emerge to infect more people and some people multiple times, employers in New York and New Jersey should note these ongoing pandemic-related paid leave provisions available to their employees.

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