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.