Levy Employment Law Blog

11

April, 2021

Reconciling 2021’s Expanded NYS and FFCRA COVID-Related Leave Obligations

By Tracey I. Levy

The continuation of the payroll tax credits under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”) through September 30, 2021, with an increased range of qualifying purposes, together with new guidance from the New York State Department of Labor on New York’s own COVID-19 leave requirements, can collectively leave employers in a quandary as to their legal options and obligations.  The following table overlays the requirements and eligibility criteria under the state and federal laws.  As referenced in the table:

NYS COVID-19 Leave – is leave for a period of up to two weeks based on a government-issued quarantine or isolation order. New York State mandates employers provide up to three periods of covered leave per employee, but the second and third periods 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 positive for COVID-19 (see our  NYS COVID leave blog posting).  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.

NYS Paid Family Leave benefit – provides payment to care for a child for the duration of a quarantine or isolation period, and for up to 12 weeks of leave per year at the statutory amount ($840.70/week) through the government-mandated NYS PFL program 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.

FFCRA tax credit for sick leave – provides employers who offer paid COVID-19 leave with a tax credit for a total of two weeks, up to a cap of $511 per day for sick leave due to an employee’s own medical condition and a cap of $200 per day for sick leave due to care of someone else.  Employees who previously received FFCRA COVID-19 leave in the first year of the pandemic are eligible for up to another two weeks of leave as of April 1, 2021.  Note that FFCRA paid leave offered in 2021 is on a voluntary basis and is not mandated, but should be provided consistently to all eligible employees.

FFCRA tax credit for care of a family member – provides employers who offer paid COVID-19 family care leave with a tax credit up to a cap of $200 per day for a total of 12 weeks under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA); employees who previously received FFCRA COVID-19 family leave in the first year of the pandemic are eligible for up to another twelve weeks of leave beginning April 1, 2021.  Note that FFCRA paid leave offered in 2021 is on a voluntary basis and is not mandated, but should be provided consistently to all eligible employees.

April 2021 COVID Leave Table

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail
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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

7

March, 2021

NJ Employers Need Special Expert’s Sign-Off Before Disciplining Based on a Positive Test for Cannabis

By Alexandra Lapes

On February 22, 2021, after nearly three years of deliberation, New Jersey became the 15th state to fully legalize cannabis for recreational and medical use.  That legalization process includes new employment law protections to users of cannabis products in certain circumstances and places significant constraints on drug testing of applicants and employees.

How We Got Here

During the November election, 67% of New Jersey voters had approved a ballot measure legalizing adult-use cannabis and a state constitutional amendment was adopted on January 1, 2021, pending regulation by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission to establish a regulated marketplace for cultivation, distribution, and the sale of cannabis.  However, lawmakers then discovered discrepancies in the legislation that were interpreted as legalizing cannabis for children and did not sign the cannabis measures into law until they reached an agreement on a clean-up bill.  In total, three adult-use cannabis reform measures were signed into law, namely, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance, and Marketplace Modernization Act (“NJCREAMMA” or “legalization bill”), the decriminalizing marijuana and hashish possession bill (“decriminalization bill”), and the “clean-up bill,” clarifying cannabis use and possession penalties for individuals younger than 21 years old.

The decriminalization provisions of the cannabis bills took effect immediately upon signature.  The provisions affecting the employment relationship are not effective until the Cannabis Regulatory Commission provides rules and regulations, which is mandated within 180 days after the bill was signed into law, or within 45 days of appointment of all members of the commission, whichever is later.

Provides a New Protected Class

The NJCREAMMA prohibits employers from refusing to hire any person, or discharging, or taking any adverse action against an employee, because they use cannabis products, and explicitly protects employees from being subject to any adverse employment action solely because they have tested positive for cannabinoid metabolites.*  This is a change from prior versions of the bill, which had explicitly permitted employers to take adverse action against an employee for use of cannabis or cannabis items in certain circumstances.  While the new law thus creates a protected class for cannabis users in New Jersey, employers are still permitted to maintain drug and alcohol-free workplaces and policies, and employers can discipline employees who engage in some other prohibited conduct under the law, such as being under the influence, possessing, selling, or transporting cannabis while in the workplace.

Drug Testing Requirements

The NJCREAMMA does not require employers to drug test employees who they believe have engaged in prohibited conduct under the employer’s policy.  Instead, the law explicitly permits employers to drug test:

  • upon reasonable suspicion of an employee’s usage of a cannabis item while engaged in the performance of the employee’s work responsibilities;
  • upon finding any observable signs of intoxication related to usage of a cannabis item;
  • as random screening;
  • as pre-employment screening;
  • as regular screening of current employees to determine use during work hours; or
  • following a work-related accident subject to investigation by the employer.

The employer may then use the results of that drug test when determining the appropriate employment action concerning the employee, provided the drug test satisfies two prescribed requirements, specifically, that:

1. it is conducted with scientifically reliable objective testing methods and procedures (i.e. testing blood, urine, or saliva); and

2. a physical evaluation is conducted by a “Workplace Impairment Recognition Expert” (WIRE).

A WIRE is an individual with the necessary certification to opine on the employee’s state of impairment or lack of, related to the usage of cannabis.  To obtain a WIRE certification, an individual must be trained to detect and identify an employee’s use of cannabis items or other intoxicating substances and assist in the investigation of workplace accidents.  The Cannabis Regulatory Commission is tasked with creating minimum standards and courses of study available for full or part-time employees or others contracted to provide services on behalf of the employer, to become certified as a WIRE.

Drug and Alcohol-Free Workplaces Permitted

The NJCREAMMA states that employers are not required to amend, repeal, or otherwise affect an employer’s policy and efforts to maintain a drug and alcohol-free workplace, and employers are expressly permitted to implement and continue to enforce policies that prohibit the use, possession, or being under the influence of cannabis while in the workplace or during work hours. The NJCREAMMA also does not require an employer to permit or accommodate any personal use of cannabis activities in the workplace, and employers may take adverse employment action against any individual found to be engaging in any prohibited conduct under a workplace policy.  In addition, if the requirements of the NJCREAMMA would result in a provable adverse impact on an employer who is subject to a federal contract, then the employer may revise its employee prohibitions consist with federal law, rule, and regulations.

Questions Left Unanswered

The law is voluminous and leaves many questions unanswered about the practical implications of these new cannabis protections.  For example, if an employer suspects someone of coming to work with their ability impaired, must the employer send the employee for a drug test before taking further responsive action, or can the employer opt out of drug testing?  If the employer opts not to drug test, can it discipline or fire the person based on perceived impairment?

Clearly, if an employer does drug test, the WIRE certification is required.  However, there appear to be two competing provisions in the statute on whether a drug test is required before an employer can take any adverse employment action against an employee who comes to work apparently under the influence of cannabis.  One provision indicates that an employer is still permitted to maintain a drug and alcohol free workplace and can have policies that prohibit use of cannabis items or intoxication by employees during work hours, while another provision suggests that the WIRE certification process is not only intended for purposes of determining the reliability of a positive drug test but also to balance employers’ interest in maintaining a drug and alcohol free workplace with employees’ interest in not being improperly disciplined or discharged.

If the latter interpretation applies, then the law holds employers to a higher proof standard before taking adverse action against a cannabis user than in the event someone reports to work under the influence of alcohol.   If the former applies, then the greater protection for cannabis users only kicks in when an employer chooses to administer a drug test to an individual who is believed to be impaired, and the WIRE process essentially is meant to discourage employers from relying solely on drug tests.  Employers will need to await regulatory guidance to clarify the circumstances under which an employer needs to involve a WIRE.

Employers should review and revise their drug testing policies and procedures now to ensure they do not include any outright bans on cannabis use that are inconsistent with the NJCREAMMA and be alert for further regulations on certification standards set by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which may require further updates to employer policies and practices.

*Editor’s note: This article was updated 3/15/21 to correct a misstatement regarding the scope of the protection against adverse action.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Back to Top