13

October, 2021

Shifting Rules Stymie Return to Office

By Tracey I. Levy

Perpetually changing requirements with regard to face coverings, vaccinations, and testing following close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 present thorny challenges for employers looking to bring their workforces back into offices.  While many scuttled their post-Labor Day return-to-office plans due to the proliferation of the COVID-19 Delta variant, employers are once again revisiting and even moving forward with bringing employees back in physical proximity with one another, at least through hybrid work schedules.  For employers in New York, any such initiatives require revisiting (and continually monitoring) the most current federal, state and local guidance with regard to protecting workers against the spread of COVID-19.

OSHA’s Safe Work Guidance and the New York State HERO Act

Updated Safe Work Guidance issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on August 13, 2021 draws distinctions in face covering, testing and quarantine requirements based on employees’ vaccination status.  The OSHA guidance references the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and applies to employees outside the healthcare industry, who are separately covered by the OSHA Emergency Temporary Standards for Healthcare.

Distinctions Based on Vaccination Status

The Safe Work Guidance currently advises that fully vaccinated people should:

  • wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission, and may choose to wear a mask in areas with lesser levels of transmission;
  • get tested three to five days following a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19; and
  • wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days after exposure to COVID-19 or until a negative test result.

In contrast, the guidance advises that those workers who are not fully vaccinated should:

  • wear a mask in public indoor settings at all times;
  • maintain social distancing whenever possible;
  • get tested immediately following a known exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and,
  • if the first test following exposure is negative, get tested again in five to seven days after last exposure or immediately if symptoms develop during quarantine.

Federal vs. NYS Face Mask Standards

OSHA’s guidance with respect to face covering defines “areas of substantial or high transmission” not just by geography, but by industry as well.  Regardless of community transmission rates, OSHA recommends mask-wearing for all employees in manufacturing, meat, seafood and poultry processing facilities, high-volume retailers and grocers, and agriculture processors.

New York State also has once again updated its guidance with regard to face covering.  The general expectation under the standard Model Airborne Infectious Disease Exposure Prevention Plan (HERO Act Plan) issued by New York is that employees will wear appropriate face masks in accordance with applicable guidance from the State Department of Health or the CDC.  Presently, the New York State Department of Health has not issued any such requirements applicable to general office settings (outside select industries like healthcare), which therefore should leave employers to follow the CDC’s guidelines and the OSHA Safe Work Guidance.

However, a mid-September 2021 revision to the HERO Act Plan provides that if all individuals on premises in the workplace (not just the employees) are fully vaccinated, then appropriate face coverings are recommended, but not required.  Past guidance from the CDC with regard to masking had been predicated on whether everyone in the location was vaccinated, but that is not the most current CDC standard.  As New York State is currently designated by the CDC as a high transmission state, the new exception in the HERO Act Plan is arguably more lenient than the OSHA/CDC position on face masks for areas of substantial or high transmission.  This leaves New York employers in something of a quandary as to whether to excuse face masks when the individuals in their workplace are all fully vaccinated.

Encouraging Vaccinations

The OSHA guidance additionally encourages employers to make it easier for workers to get vaccinated by offering paid time off for the vaccine and any recovery from its effects, and it further suggests that employers consider mandating vaccination or regular COVID-19 testing for employees.  New York State employers do not have much optionality on this, as the state has already separately mandated that employers provide paid leave for employees to get vaccinated, and the state has further designated recovery from the effects of a vaccine to be a permitted use under the state’s general paid sick leave law.

Additional Precautions and Accommodating Disabilities

OSHA’s Safe Work Guidance retains the now relatively familiar recommendations with regard to social distancing, educating and training workers on safe work protocols, maintaining ventilation systems, and performing routine cleaning and disinfection.  All of those factors similarly comprise elements that employers need to have addressed in their HERO Act plans.

Finally, OSHA’s guidance reminds employers of their obligation to take steps to protect those who cannot be vaccinated or cannot use face coverings due to a disability.  While not expressly stated in the Safe Work Guidance, this obligation similarly extends to those who decline to be vaccinated based on sincerely held religious beliefs, and is consistent with the requirements of New York State law.

If Someone in the Office Tests Positive for COVID-19

Once employees have actually returned to the office, current guidance from the CDC on Quarantine and Isolation provides that someone who thinks or knows they have COVID-19 (that is not a severe case and who is not immunocompromised) should self-quarantine and get tested.  That individual can be around others and return to work after:

  • 10 days from when symptoms first appeared and
  • 24 hours with no fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and
  • Improvement of other symptoms of COVID-19 (i.e.: loss of taste and smell, which can linger for weeks).

If the individual who tested positive had no symptoms, then the individual can be around others and return to work after 10 days from the initial positive COVID-19 test, unless symptoms later develop.  Someone who was severely ill with COVID-19 or is immunocompromised may need up to 20 days to recover from the date symptoms first appeared and, if immunocompromised, the individual should consult with their healthcare provider about possible additional testing or precautions before returning to work.

New York State currently defers to the CDC guidance with regard to these quarantine and isolation periods.  Employers are reminded that, while the program offering federal tax credits for providing paid leave when an employee is unable to work due to quarantine for COVID-19 has now expired, New York State has a separate COVID-19 paid leave law.  As we discussed in a series of COVID-19 leave articles on our blog earlier this year, the state law may require paying employees full salary for all or a portion (depending on the size of the employer) of their quarantine or isolation period if an employee is unable to work remotely, and this payment obligation is separate from other paid leave entitlements the employee may have under the paid sick leave law or the employer’s policies.

Keep Checking for New Legal Standards

These remain challenging times in many respects, and the legal landscape continues to be turbulent ground for employers as governing bodies at the federal, state and local levels each endeavor to balance competing considerations.  Reopening plans developed over the summer or earlier are likely no longer compliant with current requirements, and employers should look to the dedicated COVID-19 government websites and get legal advice to ensure they are meeting their obligations.

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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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30

November, 2020

Three Key Employment Items to Address Before the New Year

By Tracey I. Levy and Alexandra Lapes

As the new year quickly approaches, employers should aim to update their policies and practices to stay legally compliant and prepare their workforce for the new year.   In particular, employers in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey need to ensure they are complying with harassment prevention training requirements, have updated their sick and safe leave and their harassment and discrimination prevention policies, and have updated their procedures to meet new notice, payroll, and tracking requirements.

1. Training

This is year two for meeting the annual New York State and New York City interactive sexual harassment prevention training requirements.  Employers that have not yet conducted training this year should make that a priority before year-end to remain in compliance at both the state and city levels.  Note, for new hires, New York City requires employers with 15 or more employees to conduct initial training within their first 90 days, and all other New York employers are subject to the state’s requirement for training to be conducted as soon as practicable after hire.  When conducting the training, employees must be provided with a copy of the employer’s sexual harassment prevention policy, training materials, and a notice of employee rights.

Connecticut employers are also required to conduct sexual harassment prevention training, and the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities recently extended that deadline to January 1, 2021.  Employers with three or more employees must train all their employees, while the smallest employers need only train those in a supervisory role.  Meeting this training obligation will satisfy an employer’s legal requirements for the next ten years as to existing employees, but on an ongoing basis, new hires need to be trained within six months after they are hired.

2. Policies

Employers should review and revise their employee handbook policies on sick and safe leave, harassment prevention, and anti-discrimination, to ensure compliance with recent changes in the law.

  • Sick and safe leave
    • New York State adopted a state-wide paid sick leave law (in addition to the pandemic-related paid leave law), that requires employers to provide up to seven days of paid sick leave per year, depending on the size of the employer.
    • New York City expanded its paid sick leave law to mirror and expand upon the state law provisions. The amendments will require New York City employers to update their paid leave policies to reflect the new updated accrual amounts and eliminate certain eligibility and waiting period requirements, as well as to add “domestic violence” as an additional basis for taking leave.
    • While Westchester County has its own paid sick leave law, the county has posted a notice on its website that the state law now governs paid leave and employers should refer to the state law for their rights and obligations. Note that there is no similar notice with regard to the Westchester County paid safe leave law, and employers should therefore assume that the safe leave law’s separate paid leave requirements are still in full force.
  • Harassment and discrimination prevention
    • Employers in New York State should update their harassment prevention policies to reflect the State Human Rights Law’s new definition of sexual harassment.
    • New York State employers must also update their policies to provide employees with appropriate notice of their rights and remedies with regard to reproductive health decisions, including a prohibition against discrimination and retaliation based on an employee’s or an employee’s dependent’s reproductive health decision-making.

3. Notice Requirements

The following payroll and tracking procedures must be put in place, in addition to meeting new notice and posting requirements.

  • Payroll and Tracking
  • New York State employers must:
    • Maintain paid sick leave records for no less than six years; and
    • Be prepared to timely provide employees with a summary of the amount of sick leave accrued and used upon request.
  • New York City employers must additionally provide:
    • Accrual, usage, and paid sick leave balance information to employees each pay period;
    • Written notice by January 1, 2021 (see notice link here) of employees’ paid sick leave rights at hire and to current employees of organizations with 100 or more employees, and conspicuously post that notice; and
    • Retain compliance records for at least three years.
  • Westchester County employers must additionally provide:
    • A Notice of Employee Rights and a copy of the County’s Safe Leave Law to all new hires; and
    • Display the required Safe Time poster both in English and Spanish, in a conspicuous location.
  • New Jersey employers with 10 or more employees must ensure they have:
    • Updated their payroll statements to ensure that they each specify: the employee’s gross and net wages; the employee’s rate of pay; and, for hourly employees, the number of hours worked during the pay period.
  • Job Protection
  • New Jersey employers must have conspicuously posted (as of April 1, 2020), two notices regarding employee misclassification.
  • Connecticut employers must provide information on the illegality of sexual harassment and remedies available to new hires within three months of their start date and send this information to each employee.
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30

September, 2020

NYC Amends Sick and Safe Time to Coordinate with NYS Leave; Employer Policies Likely Need to Be Updated

By Tracey I. Levy and Alexandra Lapes

Effective September 30, 2020, New York City is expanding its paid safe and sick time law (New York City’s Earned Safe and Sick Time Act or ESSTA), to bring the ESSTA in line with New York State’s statewide paid sick leave mandate, which is also set to take effect on September 30, by requiring more employers to provide paid leave to employees, and imposing some additional requirements.  More specifically, under the revised ESSTA:

  • employers with one to four employees are required to provide five days (40 hours) of paid safe/sick leave per calendar year if the employer had a net income of one million dollars or more during the previous tax year; and
  • employers with 100 or more employees must provide a total of seven days (56 hours) of paid safe/sick leave per calendar year.

The revised ESSTA also removes the waiting period for newly hired employees to be able to utilize safe/sick time (previously 120-days post-hire) and removes the requirement that an employee work 80 hours in a calendar year to be eligible for safe/sick leave.   Significantly, employees can utilize safe/sick time as it is accrued.  There is a phase-in period for the balance of 2020, in that employers that are required to provide additional leave under the revised law can delay those additional leave entitlements until January 1, 2021.

The revised ESSTA imposes new notice and record-keeping requirements, as well as some fee-shifting to employers.  In particular, it provides that if an employer requests documentation to support that an absence for more than three consecutive work days was used for an authorized purpose, the employer must reimburse the employee for all reasonable costs or expenses incurred for the purpose of obtaining that documentation.  Additionally, employers must provide written notice of employees’ rights under the law upon hire and must conspicuously post that notice in the employer’s place of business, as well as provide current employees with notice of their rights no later than October 30, 2020.  For each pay period, employers must provide the amount of safe/sick time accrued and used during that pay period and an employee’s total balance of accrued safe/sick leave on their pay stub or other form of pay period documentation.  Employers are now required to retain records of complying with these requirements for at least three years.

Other notable additions to the ESSTA include explicitly adding “domestic violence” as an additional basis for taking safe leave, and expanding the definition of “adverse action” and other elements of the law’s retaliation protections.  Finally, the ESSTA adds some more teeth by granting the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (Department) the ability to open an investigation on its own or after receiving a complaint, and removing the requirement that the Department first attempt to resolve a complaint through mediation.  The person or entity under investigation must respond and provide any information requested to the Department within 14 days (previously 30 days) of receiving notice of being under investigation. Additionally, corporate counsel is granted enforcement rights to initiate court proceedings and bring civil actions for pattern or practice violations. Employers found liable for any official or unofficial policy or practice of not providing or refusing to allow the use of safe/sick time will be subject to $500 in damages per employee, as well as additional damages of up to $15,000 for an unlawful practice or pattern violation.

These changes are significant enough as to warrant revisions to existing safe/sick time policies for most New York City employers, particularly with regard to the changes in accrual amounts, removal of waiting periods, expanded definitions, and the new employer reimbursement obligations for employees securing documentation to substantiate their absence.

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