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Emergency Paid Leave Act Update

March 18 - Posted at 9:17 PM Tagged: , , , ,
Late this afternoon, the Senate passed its version of the paid leave bill that has been in the forefront of discussions this week. It does not appear that the text of the Senate’s version of the bill is available yet online, but we will make available a recap of  its contents once it is available. 
 
The President must still sign any bill passed by Congress BEFORE it will become law, although it is expected that the President could sign the bill as early as tonight and probably no later than tomorrow (Thursday) morning. Once he signs the bill, it will still be 15 days before it become effective.

House Passes COVID-19 Coronavirus Law: Prepare For Paid Sick Leave

March 16 - Posted at 10:22 AM Tagged: , , , , , ,

In an effort to boost the government’s response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act yesterday, an economic stimulus plan aimed at addressing the impact of COVID-19 on Americans. It includes many provisions which apply to employers, such as paid sick leave for employees impacted by COVID-19 and those serving as caregivers for individuals with COVID-19. 

The Act (H.R. 6201), which passed on a bipartisan 363-40 vote, will be presented to the Senate on Monday afternoon and is expected to pass the Senate with few revisions. President Trump has publicly supported the bill, and it will likely be signed into law late Monday, March 16, or Tuesday, March 17.

While the Act also contains several provisions to increase funding for familiar benefit programs, like WIC and SNAP, this post summarizes the key benefit provisions of the Act which affect employers. Please note the Act has not yet been finalized and the enacted law may vary from the below summary.

Paid And Unpaid Leave For Coronavirus-Related Reasons

There are three provisions relating to employees being forced to miss work because of the COVID-19 outbreak: an emergency expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a new federal paid sick leave law, and expanded unemployment insurance benefits.

Emergency Family And Medical Leave Expansion Act

  • Expanded Coverage And Eligibility – The Act significantly aims to amend and expand the FMLA on a temporary basis. The current employee threshold for coverage would be changed from only covering employers with 50 or more to employers covering any workplace with fewer than 500 employees. It also lowers the eligibility requirement such that an employee who has worked for the employer for at least 30 days prior to the designated leave is eligible to receive paid family and medical leave. This means that thousands of employers not previously subject to the FMLA must provide job-protected leave to employees for a COVID-19 coronavirus-designated reason.
  • Reasons For Emergency Leave – Specifically, any individual employed by the employer for at least 30 days (before the first day of leave) may take up to 12 weeks of paid, job-protected leave to allow the employee to (1) comply with a requirement or recommendation to quarantine due to exposure to, or symptoms of, coronavirus; (2) to care for an at-risk family member who is adhering to requirement or recommendation to quarantine due to exposure to, or symptoms of, coronavirus; or to (3) to care for the employee’s child if the child’s school or place of care (including if the childcare provider is unavailable) has been closed due to a public emergency.
  • Paid Leave – The first 14 days of Emergency FMLA may be unpaid, but an employee may elect to substitute any accrued paid time off, including vacation or sick leave, to cover some or all of the 14-day unpaid period. After the 14-day period, the employer must pay full-time employees at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate for the number of hours the employee would otherwise be normally scheduled. Employees who work a part-time or irregular schedule are entitled to be paid based on the average number of hours the employee worked for the six months prior to taking Emergency FMLA. Employees who have worked for less than six months prior to leave are entitled to the average number of hours the employee would normally be scheduled to work. Employers with bargaining unit employees would apply the Emergency FMLA provisions consistent with the bargaining agreement.
  • Expanded Definitions – The Act also expands the definition of who is eligible as a “parent’ under FMLA, which includes a parent-in-law of the employee, a parent of a domestic partner of the employee, and a legal guardian or other person who served as the employee’s parent (also know as in loco parentis) when the employee was a child.
  • Small Business And Other Exemptions – The bill also gives the Secretary of Labor the authority to issue regulations to exempt some small business with fewer than 50 employees (when the imposition of such requirements would jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern), and to exclude certain healthcare providers and emergency responders from the list of those employees eligible for leave.
  • Effective Date And Expiration – This program will become effective within 15 days of enactment and remain in effect until December 31, 2020.

Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act

This provision requires employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide employees (regardless of the employee’s duration of employment prior to leave) with 80 hours of paid sick leave at the employee’s regular rate (or two-thirds the employee’s regular rate to care for a child whose school or daycare has closed due to coronavirus, or to care for a family member who is self-isolating due to a coronavirus diagnosis, who is exhibiting symptoms and needs to obtain medical care, or who is complying with a requirement or recommendation to quarantine).

  • Reasons For Paid Sick Leave – This portion of the new law would allow the employee to (1) comply with a requirement or recommendation to quarantine due to exposure to, or symptoms of, coronavirus; (2) self-isolate because the employee is diagnosed with coronavirus; (3) obtain a diagnosis or care because the employee is exhibiting symptoms; (4) to care for or assist an at-risk family member who is self-isolating due to a diagnosis, who is exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus and needs to obtain medical care, or who is adhering to requirement or recommendation to quarantine due to a exposure to, or symptoms of, coronavirus; or (5) to take care of the employee’s child if the child’s school or place of care has been closed due to the COVID-19 coronavirus (including if the childcare provider is unavailable).
  • Carryover – This paid sick leave will not carry over to the following year and is in addition to any paid sick leave currently provided by employers.
  • Calculating Rate Of Pay – Employees who work a part-time or irregular schedule are entitled to be paid based on the average number of hours the employee worked for the six months prior to taking paid sick leave. Employees who have worked for less than six months prior to leave are entitled to the average number of hours the employee would normally be scheduled to work. A business employing fewer than 500 employees is required, at the request of the employee, to pay the employee for 14 days of mandated emergency paid leave instead of the initial 14 days of unpaid leave required by the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (summarized above).

An employer may not change its current paid leave policy after enactment to avoid the obligations of the additional leave mandated by the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act. This program will be administered by the Social Security Administration over the next year until these requirements expire on December 31, 2020.

Emergency Unemployment Insurance Stabilization And Access Act Of 2020

This section provides $1 billion in 2020 for emergency grants to states for activities related to unemployment insurance benefit processing and payment, under certain conditions.

Half of the resources are to be allocated to provide immediate funding to all states for administrative costs so long as they meet some basic requirements, including: (1) requiring employers to provide notification of the availability of unemployment compensation at the time of separation; (2) ensuring applications for unemployment compensation and assistance with the application process are accessible in at least two ways (in-person, by phone, or online); and (3) notifying applicants when their application is received and being processed, as well as providing information about how to ensure successful processing if the application cannot be processed. 

The other half would be reserved for emergency grants to states which experience an increase of unemployment compensation claims of at least 10% in comparison to the same quarter in the prior calendar year. Those states would be eligible to receive an additional grant to assist with costs related to such an unemployment spike if they meet additional requirements, including: (1) expressing of commitment to maintain and strengthen access to unemployment compensation; and (2) taking or planning to take steps to ease eligibility requirements and access (like waiving work search requirements and the waiting period). This provision will remain in effect until December 31, 2020.

Tax Credits For Paid Sick And Paid Family And Medical Leave

 This section provides a series of refundable tax credits for employers who are required to provide the Emergency Paid Sick Leave and Emergency Paid Family and Medical Leave described above. These tax credits are allowed against the tax imposed by Internal Revenue Code Section 3111(a), which deals with the employer portion of Social Security taxes. While this limits application of the tax credit, employers will be reimbursed if their costs for qualified sick leave or qualified family leave wages exceed the taxes they would owe.

Specifically, employers are entitled to a refundable tax credit equal to 100% of the qualified sick leave wages paid by employers for each calendar quarter in adherence with the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act. The qualified sick leave wages are capped at $511 per day ($200 per day if the leave is for caring for a family member or child) for up to 10 days per employee in each calendar quarter. 

Similarly, employers are entitled to a refundable tax credit equal to 100% of the qualified family leave wages paid by employers for each calendar quarter in accordance with the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act. The qualified family leave wages are capped at $200 per day for each individual up to $10,000 total per calendar quarter.

Coverage For Testing For COVID-19

This section requires private health plans to provide coverage for COVID-19 diagnostic testing, including the cost of a provider, urgent care center and emergency room visits in order to receive testing. Coverage must be provided at no cost to the employee and any others covered under the employee’s health plan.

Next Steps

As mentioned above, the Senate is expected to pass the legislation on Monday, and the President is expected to sign it shortly thereafter. There may be changes made by the Senate before the legislation is finalized, and there may be follow-up “clean-up” legislation. In addition, many states are proposing similar emergency legislation to enact or expand their own paid sick leave or family and medical leave laws to cover coronavirus-related issues. Some of these state laws may be in addition to any new requirements at the federal level.  

We will continue to monitor this rapidly developing situation and provide updates as appropriate.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take 12 weeks of leave to care for their own or a family member’s serious health condition and up to 26 weeks for military caregiver leave. An employee can take this leave in one block, over several stretches of time or intermittently. For an employee to take intermittent leave, they need to provide a certification that there is a medical need for such leave.

 

While longer FMLA leaves are typically straightforward, the ability of an employee to take small increments of FMLA leave periodically can generate administrative headaches for employers and raises concerns about employee abuse of intermittent leave. The FMLA offers a number of tools (many of which are not employed) that employers can use to discourage abuse of intermittent leave. Below are eight of the best strategies for helping to get a handle on the problem.

 

Tip #1- Question the Original Certification

There are a number of opportunities to ensure that a certification calling for intermittent health related absences is sufficient, valid, and supports the need for intermittent leave. When an employee submits a certification for a chronic condition that will flare up and require intermittent leave (such as asthma or migraines), the HR professional reviewing the certification should consider these options:

 

Incomplete or insufficient certification

When a certification has missing entries or is vague, you may ask the employee the provide complete and sufficient information. The request must be made in writing and must specify the reason the certification was considered incomplete or insufficient. The employee must then provide the additional information within 7 days. If the employee fails to provide this information, leave may be delayed or denied.

 

Authentication and Clarification

You may contact the health care provider to ensure that they actually prepared the certification or to clarify the meaning of a response, but an HR professional, health care provider, leave administrator or management official to make the contact. The employee’s direct supervisor may not be the one who contacts the health care provider. During this process, be careful not to request more info than what is required to authenticate or clarify the form. This can be used at the recertification stage as well as the initial certification.

 

Tip #2- Ask for a Second Opinion

Employers who have reason to doubt the validity of an initial certification may ask for a second opinion. The physician may be one of the employer’s choosing, but it can not be one the employer uses on a regular basis. It is the employer’s responsibility to pay for the second opinion. If the first and second opinions differ, the employer may require a third health care provider certification, again at the expense of the employer. The third provider’s opinion is binding. Although there are a number of opportunities to ask for recertification of an employee’s serious health condition, you may not seek second or third opinions on recertification.

 

Tip #3-Ensure That All Absences Related To The Condition Are Counted

The job of managing intermittent leave is not over after an employee submits a certification that calls for sporadic health related absences. Employers must be certain that all absences related to the condition are counted against the employee’s FMLA entitlement, while at the same time ensuring that they are not counted against the employee under a no-fault attendance policy.

 

In larger organizations, front line supervisors must be the eyes and ears of the company and must pass along the information about FMLA covered intermittent absences to HR. This, in turn, requires employers to train supervisors to recognize absences that may be covered by FMLA.

 

Identifying FMLA absences may not be as simple as it may seem, in part because the US Department of Labor and the courts have held that the employee does not have to cite the FMLA in a request. If there is an existing certification, it is enough for the employee to notify the employer that they had a recurrence of the health condition covered by the certification. For first time health related absences, supervisors should be trained to notify HR any time an employee is out for more than three days with an illness, especially if an employee saw a physician during that time.

 

Tip #4-Require Employees To Follow Your Paid Leave Policy

Employers may require that employees use up paid leave time for their intermittent FMLA absences. In fact, all employers should include such a requirement in their FMLA policies and enforce the practice of using up paid time off during FMLA leave, in order to prevent the situation where an employee can take paid leave after their FMLA leave expires and thereby extend a leave of absence beyond the FMLA entitlement.

 

The 2008 FMLA regulations made it clear that employers may require employees to abide by your paid-time off policies in order to be paid for FMLA leave time.

 

Tip #5-Request Recertification

FMLA regulations offer a number of opportunities to seek recertification of the need for FMLA leave, including intermittent leave. Unless there are changed or suspicious circumstances, these rules of thumb apply:

 

  • employees may be asked for recertification any time they seek to extend an existing FMLA leave
 
  • for long term conditions or conditions that may require sporadic absences, an employer may request recertification every 30 days in connection with an absence
 
  • if the employee is taking a solid block of leave for more than 30 days, the employer may ask for recertification if the leave extends beyond the requested leave period
 
  • if the employee is out on a leave that has been certified to extend for more than 6 months, the employer may seek recertification every 6 months
 
  • employers may ask for a new certification at the beginning of each leave year

 

As with initial certifications, the employee has 15 days to provide the recertification.

 

Tip #6-Follow Up On Changed Or Suspicious Circumstances

You should always keep tabs on use of FMLA leave, and may want to pay special attention to patterns of intermittent leave usage. You may seek recertification more frequently than 30 days if: a) the circumstances described by the existing certification have changed, or b) the employer receives information that casts doubt on the employee’s stated reason for the absence or on the continuing validity of the certification.

 

“Changed circumstances” include a different frequency or duration of absences or increased severity or complications from the illness. The regulations allow you to provide information to the health care provider about the employee’s absence pattern and ask the provider if the absences are consistent with the health condition.

 

“Information that casts doubt on the employee’s stated reason for the absence” may be information you receive (possibly from other employees) about activities the employee is engaging in while on FMLA leave that are inconsistent with the employee’s health condition. An example provided in the regulations is an employee playing in the company softball game while on leave for knee surgery.

 

A note of caution- Employers who receive information from coworkers about an employee’s actions while on leave must be certain the information they receive is credible and that the coworker has no hidden motive against the person on leave. Always attempt to independently verify information received from coworkers before taking action or requesting recertification for suspicious circumstances.

 

Tip #7-Control The Way That Employees Schedule Planned Treatment

Employees may take intermittent leave for treatment, therapy, and doctor visits for serious health conditions. FMLA regulations specifically require that employees schedule those absences for planned medical treatment in a way that least disrupts the company operations. When you receive a request for this type of intermittent leave, communicate with the employee about the frequency of the treatment, the office hours of the health care provider and way that the employee may be able to alter their schedule to cut down on disruptions.

 

Tip #8-Consider Temporary Transfers

If the need for intermittent leave is foreseeable, you may transfer the employee during the period of the intermittent leave to an available alternative position for which the employee is qualified and which better accommodates the recurring periods of leave. The alternate position must have equivalent pay and benefits, but does not have to provide equivalent duties. If the employee asks to use leave in order to work a reduced work schedule, you may also transfer the employee to a part time role at the same hourly rate as the employee’s original position, as long as the benefits remain the same.

 

You may also allow the employee to work in the employee’s original position, but on a part time basis. You may not eliminate benefits that would otherwise not be provided to part time employees, but may proportionately reduce benefits such as vacation leave if it is the employer’s normal practice to base the benefits on the number of hours worked.

 

These tips will not entirely eliminate the problem of employees trying to take advantage of the intermittent leave regulations, but they will help.

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