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Biden Proposes Temporary Subsidies for COBRA Coverage

January 20 - Posted at 3:24 PM Tagged: , , , , , ,

Days before his inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden outlined an agenda for COVID-19 relief and economic recovery that includes federal aid for health care expenses, such as providing subsidized COBRA coverage.

The relief and stimulus proposals in Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan package range from asking Congress for additional $1,400 checks for low- and middle-income wage earners to reimbursing employers with 500 or fewer employees for providing paid leave. Other provisions focus on helping consumers with health care expenses.

According to a Jan. 14 fact sheet from the Biden-Harris transition team, the new administration will immediately ask Congress to:

  • Subsidize COBRA health coverage through Sept. 30, 2021, for workers who lost their employer-sponsored health insurance, with a 100 percent tax credit for COBRA coverage premiums.
  • Expand and increase the value of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) premium tax credits, to lower or eliminate health insurance premiums for ACA marketplace plans by ensuring plan enrollees will not pay more than 8.5 percent of their income for coverage and expanding existing tax credits for people who earn up to 400 percent of the poverty level.

“Roughly two to three million people lost employer-sponsored health insurance between March and September, and even families who have maintained coverage may struggle to pay premiums and afford care,” according to the transition team’s fact sheet. “Together, these policies would reduce premiums for more than 10 million people and reduce the ranks of the uninsured by millions more.”

Existing COBRA Relief

Employers may require terminated workers who choose to continue coverage under the employer-sponsored health plan for up to 18 months to pay for COBRA coverage, with premiums limited to the full cost of the coverage plus a 2 percent administration charge. That cost, however, is not affordable for many newly unemployed workers.

During the pandemic, some employers are choosing to pay for the COBRA coverage of former employees who were laid off, or to do so for current employees who lost group health plan coverage when they were furloughed or had their hours reduced.

Last April, the Department of Labor and the IRS issued regulations extending the deadlines for COBRA notices, elections and premium payments from March 1, 2020, until 60 days after the end of the ongoing COVID-19 national emergency. “While the usual statutory penalties for COBRA violations should not apply [for now], failing to notify COBRA-qualified beneficiaries of their rights may increase the likelihood of a breach of fiduciary duty claim,” Emily Meyer, an attorney with Cohen & Buckman in New York City, wrote in November.

Other Health Care Proposals

Among other health care-related agenda items, the new administration will ask Congress to:

  • Appropriate $4 billion to enable the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Health Resources and Services Administration to expand access to their services.
  • Authorize an additional $20 billion to make sure veterans’ health care needs can be met through the pandemic.
  • Provide new funding for health services targeting underserved populations, including expanding community health centers.

A Partisan Divide

The fate of the health care provisions is uncertain at this time. Congressional Democrats welcomed Biden’s proposals. Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., for instance, issued a statement saying he was “glad to see that the plan provides critical subsidies [for COBRA and ACA plans] to help American families access health care during this critical time.”

Republicans have criticized the extent of the new proposals, estimated to cost an addition $1.9 trillion over existing relief. Efforts by Congress “should be strategic, focusing on families and small businesses in need,” said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.

What Employers Need To Know About Latest Federal COVID-19 Stimulus Package

December 24 - Posted at 8:34 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Federal lawmakers agreed to a second round of stimulus legislation late Monday night, sending a nearly 6,000-page bill to President Trump for his expected signature. The proposal allocates $900 billion in economic relief to businesses and workers across the country. Of the many provisions tucked within the mammoth bill are several key provisions of interest to employers. Specifically, the proposal continues the popular small business loan program, provides new options for unemployed workers, extends tax credits for continued paid sick leave, and offers a variety of other tax- and benefit-related provisions. It does not, however, create a liability shield for COVID-19 litigation. What do you need to know about the critical workplace-related portions of Stimulus 2.0? Here are summaries of the most significant employment-related provisions and recommendations for actions you should consider as a result of each.

Continuation Of The Paycheck Protection Program

Foremost in the eyes of many businesses, Stimulus 2.0 apportions approximately $284 billion to a revamped Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). It provides small businesses with much-needed financial support in the form of potentially forgivable loans equal to the total money spent on payroll and other specified costs during an eight or 24-week period after the disbursement of the loan. However, the Stimulus 2.0 program makes many critical changes from the previous PPP, including lowering the employee threshold for businesses to 300 employees or fewer (down from 500), and the loan maximum to $2 million (down from $10 million). What do potential borrowers need to know?

Tax Deductibility of Expenses

The first PPP iteration provided that the forgiven amount was tax-free, but the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) ruled that the expenses paid with forgiven PPP loan proceeds were not deductible. Thus, before Stimulus 2.0, the amount of loan proceeds used to cover payroll, if forgiven, would not be deductible. 

Stimulus 2.0 changes that, clarifying that gross income does not include any amount that would otherwise arise from the forgiveness of the PPP loan. The bill states:

no deduction shall be denied or reduced, no tax attribute shall be reduced, and no basis increase shall be denied, by reason of the exclusion from gross income provided by [the loan forgiveness provision that says forgiven PPP loans will not count as income.

This means that deductions are allowed for deductible expenses paid with forgiven PPP loan proceeds. This provision is effective as of the date of enactment of the CARES Act and applies to second draw PPP loans.

New Allowable Expenses

Stimulus 2.0 expands qualifying expenses for new borrowers and those who have not yet applied for forgiveness, including the following:

  • Payment for any software, cloud computing, and other human resources and accounting needs;
  • Covered property damage costs, including costs for property damage due to public disturbances that occurred during 2020 that are not covered by insurance;
  • Covered supplier costs for expenditures supplier according to a contract, purchase order, or order for goods in effect before taking out the loan that are essential to the recipient’s operations when the expenditure was made (supplier costs of perishable goods can be made before or during the life of the loan); and
  • Covered worker protection expenditures for personal protective equipment (PPE) and help for compliance with federal health and safety guidelines or any equivalent State and local guidance related to COVID-19 during the period between March 1, 2020, and the end of the national emergency declaration.

The bill also allows loans made under PPP before, on, or after enacting Stimulus 2.0 to be eligible to utilize the expanded forgivable expenses except for borrowers who have already received loan forgiveness.

Second Draw PPP Loans

Section 311 of Stimulus 2.0 provides for second draws of PPP loans for smaller businesses, capping the loan amount at $2 million. Under this section, eligible borrowers must (1) employ not more than 300 employees; (2) have used or will use the full amount of their first PPP; and (3) demonstrate at least a 25% reduction in gross receipts in the first, second, or third quarter of 2020 relative to the same 2019 quarter. Borrower applications submitted on or after January 1, 2021, are eligible to utilize the gross receipts from the fourth quarter of 2020. Eligible second draw borrowers also include non-profit organizations, housing co-operatives, veterans’ organizations, tribal businesses, self-employed individuals, sole proprietors, independent contractors, and small agricultural co-operatives.

Second draw loan terms are reduced and calculated up to 2.5X the average monthly payroll costs in the 12 months before the loan application or the calendar year (2019), with maximum loan amounts capped at $2 million. However, Stimulus 2.0 maximizes benefits for borrowers in the restaurant and hospitality industries by calculating loans up to 3.5X average monthly payroll costs. Additionally, the bill reinstitutes the waiver of affiliation rules that applied during initial PPP loans for second loan borrowers with multiple locations employing not more than 300 employees per location.

Second draw loan recipients are eligible for loan forgiveness equal to the sum of their payroll costs and expanded allowable expenses, subject to the previous program’s 60%/40% allocation between payroll and non-payroll costs.

Streamlined Applications For Borrowers Under $150K

Stimulus 2.0 provides a streamlined process for loans under $150,000. In fact, such borrowers will not be subject to the required reductions in forgiveness amounts generally imposed by reductions in salaries or headcount by simply certifying that the borrower meets the revenue loss requirements described above on or before the date the entity submits the loan forgiveness application.

What You Should Do Next: If you are considering seeking financial assistance, regardless of whether or not you’ve previously received any, you should determine your eligibility for this second round of PPP loans. Additionally, you should continue to follow this rapidly developing situation, especially given the fluidity of the previous Paycheck Protection Program. 

Continued Assistance For Unemployed Workers

The CARES Act previously expanded unemployment assistance for countless Americans whose employment was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other things, the CARES Act provided a $600 weekly supplement to state unemployment benefits until the end of July and expanded eligibility to cover COVID-19 related reasons as well as many workers not traditionally covered by unemployment benefits. However, many of the unemployment benefits provided by the CARES Act were set to expire December 31. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Stimulus 2.0 provides for further unemployment benefits in an attempt to bring cash flow to millions of Americans whose employment was adversely impacted. 

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance

Stimulus 2.0 expands the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) created by the CARES Act to March 17, 2021 and allows those who have not yet exhausted their rights under PUA to continue to receive such assistance until April 5, 2021. The stimulus package also expands the number of weeks for these PUA unemployment benefits from a 39-week period to a 50-week period.

While providing these additional benefits, Stimulus 2.0 adds a documentation requirement starting January 31, 2021 for both new applicants as well as those receiving PUA. Specifically, new applicants must submit documentation to substantiate employment or self-employment within 21 days although this deadline may be extended for good cause. Similarly, individuals receiving PUA as of January 31, 2021 must submit documentation to substantiate employment or self-employment within 90 days.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation

Stimulus 2.0 restores the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) supplement to all state and federal unemployment benefits. While lower than its predecessor under the CARES Act, this stimulus package provides a $300 weekly boost from December 26, 2020 to March 14, 2021.

Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation

Like the PUA, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) permits individuals receiving benefits as of March 14, 2021 to continue to receive such assistance through April 5, 2021 as long as they have not reached the maximum number of weeks. The new stimulus also increases the number of benefit weeks under the PEUC from 13 weeks to 24 weeks.

Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation

Stimulus 2.0 provides $100 per week additional benefit to individuals who have at least $5,000 a year in self-employment income but are disqualified from PUA because they are eligible for regular state unemployment benefits.

 

Federal Support To Governments And Non-Profit Organizations

To help make these expanded benefits possible, Stimulus 2.0 extends the unemployment relief for government entities and non-profits from December 31 to March 14, 2021. Similarly, this stimulus package extends several CARES Act provisions originally created to incentivize states to provide the unemployment benefits by aiding with the expense and burdens created by these unemployment programs.

Return-To-Work Reporting Requirement

Stimulus 2.0 requires states to implement methods within 30 days to address situations where claimants refuse to return to work or accept an offer of suitable work without good cause. This must include a reporting method for employers to notify the state when an individual refuses employment and a notice to claimants informing of return-to-work laws, their rights to refuse work, and what constitutes suitable work.

What You Should Do Next – You should ensure you provide information on the additional unemployment benefits to those employees impacted by your staffing decisions. In addition, you should continue to monitor your obligations to report when individuals refuse employment, as states will likely change these over the next 30 days.  

No Extension Of FFCRA Paid Leave (Yet) – But Tax Credit Period Extended Through March

The compromise agreement does not extend the paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave requirements of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which expires on December 31. Therefore, an employer’s obligation to provide paid leave under the FFCRA will cease at the end of the year. 

However, the final legislation does extend the tax credit for both the Emergency Paid Sick Leave and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave under the FFCRA until March 31, 2021. This means that you are not required to provide paid leave under the FFCRA after December 31, 2020. If you choose to voluntarily do so (assuming the employee still has eligible leave remaining), you will be able to obtain a tax credit for those payments until the end of March under the compromise agreement contained in Stimulus 2.0.

In addition, depending on the circumstances of an employee’s leave, it is possible that the employee could be entitled to normal unpaid leave under the FMLA even after the FFCRA expires, if they still have weeks available under the FMLA. You should work with counsel to determine whether any employees out on FFCRA leave may be entitled to regular FMLA unpaid leave after the end of the year. 

Moreover, you should pay close attention to developments in Congress after the new year. There is already talk about a larger stimulus package after Congress returns and President-elect Biden is inaugurated. Congress could very well pass legislation early in the new year that extends (or even expands) the paid leave requirements of the FFCRA, and they could make it retroactive to the expiration of the prior law. 

In addition, you need to be aware of state and local laws passed in recent months that require the payment of sick leave to employees for a variety of COVID-19-related reasons. Some of these local laws expire at the end of the year, some are tied to the expiration of the FFCRA, and some do not expire. We could also see state and local lawmakers extend these paid sick leave requirements into the future. You should work closely with counsel to determine any applicable state and local mandates, and to continue to monitor developments on this front into 2021.

What You Should Do Next – Decide whether you will voluntarily extend paid leave benefits into the new year in order to gain a tax credit for those payments through March 2021. Work with counsel to determine whether any employees out on FFCRA leave may be entitled to regular FMLA unpaid leave, or some other form of leave under state law, after the end of the year. 

Tax And Benefit-Related Provisions

The bill also contains the following tax and benefit related provisions:

  • PPP Forgiven Loan Amounts – The IRS had argued that expenses incurred using forgiven PPP funds were not deductible. For example, wages paid with those funds could not be deducted. With Stimulus 2.0, Congress overruled the IRS and decreed that expenses incurred using forgiven PPP funds are deductible.
  • 2019 income may be used for the earned income tax credit – If 2020 earned income is less than 2019 earned income, 2019 income can be used when calculating the earned income tax credit. A lower 2020 income (for example, due to loss of employment during the year) may reduce the amount of credit available. Using a higher 2019 income amount may mean a higher credit for those who otherwise qualify.
  • Deductibility of business meals – Derided by some as the “three martini lunch” deduction, business meals after December 31 and before January 1, 2023 will be fully tax deductible. The current administration believes this provision will aid in reviving the ailing restaurant industry.
  • The Employee Retention Tax Credit – The employee retention tax credit is a credit for wages paid to certain employees during: i) a full or partial suspension of operations; or ii) a significant decline in gross receipts. The stimulus package enacts several technical clarifications but more importantly extends the credit’s availability from January 1, 2021 until June 30, 2021.
  • Flexible Spending Accounts – The law has several provisions which increase employer flexibility in administering health and dependent care flexible spending accounts. Usually subject to the “use it or lose it rule” (unused amounts at the end of the year are forfeited) the act makes available expanded carryover, grace period, and election change rules.

What You Should Do Next – Work with your counsel and your tax preparers to ensure you understand the new tax and benefit provisions and work them into your planning for 2021 and beyond.

No Federal Liability Shield In Stimulus 2.0

It is often said that the result of a good mediation leaves both sides a little bit unhappy. The negotiations for the stimulus bill could be said to have done that with the Democrats not getting aid to state and local governments, and Republicans not getting liability protection for business owners.

Republicans had sought through various bills, such as the Safe to Work Act, to offer a liability protection for business owners. These efforts were criticized by organized labor and safety advocates as potentially diminishing employee safety measures. The proposal also sought to pre-empt state laws that conflicted with it. While the liability shield did not survive the sausage making process of Congress, some states have already taken measures to implement similar shields.

Roughly a dozen states have instituted some form of liability shield through either legislation or executive order. The types of protection vary from broad to narrow. Some states provide immunity for businesses as long as the owner attempted in good faith to comply with guidance from public health agencies. This protection may be in the form of an affirmative defense where the burden is on the business to demonstrate that it made good faith efforts to at least attempt to comply with public health guidance. Other states provide broader protections: as long as the owner did not act with willful misconduct or gross negligence, the burden will be on plaintiffs to prove that the business acted with willful misconduct or gross negligence. At least one state, North Carolina, has limited these protections to “essential businesses.” While some of the states provide immunity from civil liability, others focus on limiting what types of damages can be recovered.  

The majority of states have not implemented any COVID-19-specific protections – or at least not yet. This has led to a cottage industry of COVID-19 litigation springing up in workplaces across the country, as detailed in the Fisher Phillips COVID-19 Employment Litigation Tracker (with over 1,200 such lawsuits having been filed against employers through date of publication).

What You Should Do Next – You should determine whether the states in which you operate are providing any form of liability protections, and if so how is it limited. The best thing employers and businesses can do, even in state that are providing liability shields, is to make best efforts to comply with the ever-changing guidance from health departments, the CDC, and state and federal OSHA.

Top 7 Things You Need To Know As EEOC Says Employers May Mandate COVID-19 Vaccines

December 17 - Posted at 8:47 PM Tagged: , , , , , ,

Employers now have clarification that they will be able mandate the COVID-19 vaccine among their workers in certain circumstances without running afoul of key federal anti-discrimination laws, according to updated guidance issued Wednesday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. While there are numerous issues to consider before mandating that your employees get vaccinated, this guidance is the first official pronouncement on the subject from the employment law watchdog agency and provides an outline of various hurdles to overcome. Here are the top seven takeaways for employers from this critical development.

1. The EEOC indicates that employers can require their workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine in certain circumstances, even under the Emergency Use Authorization.

The agency’s updated FAQs do not unequivocally state that “employers can require the vaccine.” However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) repeatedly answers questions discussing what actions employers can take in response to various circumstances after an employer has mandated the vaccine. This approach plainly suggests there must be circumstances where employers are legally permitted to require vaccine immunization of their workers without violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII, and other federal anti-discrimination laws. According to the EEOC, this is true even though the COVID-19 vaccine is only authorized under the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), rather than approved under the full and comprehensive FDA vaccine licensure process, known as a Biologics License Application or “BLA.”

To be clear, the only scenario described by the EEOC as a permissible basis to mandate vaccination under the ADA is when a worker poses a “direct threat” to themselves or others by their physical presence in the workplace without being immunized. This means mandating vaccines is only permitted if workers would pose “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” Therefore, if an employee is capable of fully performing their current job duties remotely without the potential spread of the virus to co-workers or work-related third parties, it does not appear that you can require that they get vaccinated.

2. Employers that require the COVID-19 vaccine must consider reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.

Notably, simply because your company chooses to mandate vaccine usage for those workers who may pose a direct threat to themselves or others does not mean you have complete freedom to require the vaccine for all such workers. If an individual cannot be vaccinated because of a disability, you need to determine whether you can provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce the safety risk. You cannot automatically exclude them from the workplace or take any other negative action against them.

First and foremost, the EEOC recommends that those managers responsible for communicating with your employees about compliance with your vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an employee’s accommodation request. You should also train your managers about the process they should follow to refer accommodation requests through the proper channels for consideration. While the EEOC’s guidance does not mention this, you should strongly consider providing details about the accommodation request procedure in writing to all of your employees (whether in hard copy, electronically, or both). 

Next, the EEOC indicates you should engage in a flexible, interactive process with any employee requesting an accommodation to identify options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position. Some things you should consider include the prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination, the amount of involvement with customers, and the rate of vaccination in your community, as well as the amount of contact with others whose vaccination status could be unknown. You should consult your Fisher Phillips’ attorney in developing a medical inquiry for an employee’s doctor or a protocol for responding to requests for accommodation more generally.

Finally, the EEOC reminds employers that it is unlawful to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation, just as it is a violation of federal law to retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation. Likewise, you should not reveal which employees have or have not been vaccinated.

3. Similarly, employers need to consider reasonable accommodations for employees who are unable to receive the vaccine for religious reasons.

The EEOC says you must provide a reasonable accommodation if an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents them from receiving the vaccination – unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII. The definition of “undue hardship” is slightly different in the religious context compared to the disability context, as courts have defined it as simply “having more than a de minimis cost or burden” on an employer.

While you should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief, you would be justified in requesting additional supporting information if you have an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance. The key word here is “objective.” This is a delicate area of the law and you should not unilaterally contact the employee’s place or worship seeking proof about their level of belief, or engage in any conduct that could raise potential discrimination issues. We recommend consulting with an attorney before making such a request to any of your employees.

4. Employers can require employees to show proof that they received a COVID-19 vaccination.

Assuming you can demonstrate that a mandatory vaccine is appropriate and that no accommodation requirements are in play, the EEOC indicates you can require workers to prove they have received the COVID-19 vaccine. The EEOC says that simply requesting proof of receipt of the vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry. 

However, subsequent questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that disability-related inquiries be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” For this reason, if you require employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own healthcare provider, you may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA. If you do receive medical information along with proof of vaccination, you should store the medical information in a confidential medical file consistent with ADA requirements.

5. The administration of a COVID-19 vaccine is not a “medical examination” for purposes of the ADA.

The EEOC confirmed that the act of administering the COVID-19 vaccine is not an ADA “medical examination.” Therefore, if you (or a third party with whom you contract to administer the vaccine) simply administer the vaccine to an employee, the EEOC does not consider you to be seeking information about an individual’s impairments or current health status – but see the next point about questionnaires relating to giving the vaccine.

6. Employers can pose pre-screening vaccination questions, so long as they comply with ADA requirements.

The EEOC’s FAQs offered some direction for employers who want to ask pre-screening vaccination questions as they administer the inoculation. The first thing employers need to know is that pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA’s provision on disability-related inquiries (defined as any such inquiries likely to elicit information about a disability). Therefore, if you administer the vaccine, you must show that any pre-screening questions are job-related and consistent with business necessity. To meet this standard, the EEOC says, you need to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, does not receive a vaccination, will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of themselves or others.  

The EEOC does explain that there are two circumstances in which these screening questions can be asked without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement. First, you can offer the vaccination to employees on a voluntary basis (i.e. employees choose whether to be vaccinated), which means the employee’s decision to answer pre-screening, disability-related questions would also be voluntary. If an employee chooses not to answer these questions, you may decline to administer the vaccine to them but may not retaliate against, intimidate, or threaten them for refusing to answer the questions.  

Second, if an employee receives an employer-required vaccination from a third party with whom your organization does not have a contract (such as a pharmacy or other healthcare provider), the ADA “job-related and consistent with business necessity” restrictions on disability-related inquiries would not apply.

  Finally, regardless of whether you meet the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” standard, the ADA requires you to keep any employee medical information obtained in the course of the vaccination program confidential. On a related note, the agency reminds employers that any pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories or immune systems of family members, may violate the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). As the EEOC explicitly says that “it is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations,” this is an issue that employers should be aware of as we move closer to vaccines being provided to members of the general population.

To avoid these complications, the EEOC says that employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves. However, to steer clear of unintended GINA violations, you may still want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof. If this warning is provided, the EEOC says any genetic information you receive in response to your request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and, therefore, not a GINA violation. 

7. Employees may be confused about their ability to “refuse” the vaccine as a result of the EUA.

We expect that some employees may believe they have the right the “refuse” the vaccine even if mandated by their employer. That’s because of language in the EEOC’s updated guidance about the EUA that may cause confusion.

The EEOC notes that, for any vaccine issued under an Emergency Use Authorization, the FDA (and the vaccination provider) has an obligation to inform vaccine recipients about its potential benefits and risks, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, whether any alternative products are available, and “that they have the option to accept or refuse the vaccine.” This language comes from the federal statute governing the EUA.

The FDA’s website (cited by the EEOC) says that the option to refuse is typically included in a “fact sheet” provided to the individual receiving the vaccine (or, alternatively, the party administering the vaccine can direct the individual to the weblink to view the fact sheet online). That fact sheet for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can be found here, and it explicitly says that “the recipient or their caregiver has the option to accept or refuse [the] Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine.”

This directive seems to be targeted at whether an individual can be forced to take the vaccine by a government entity (as a New York lawmaker recently suggested), not whether an employer can condition an individual’s continued employment on taking the vaccine. After all, in at-will employment settings, an employee can always pursue alternative employment if they do not want to get vaccinated as a condition of their current job. Note that this analysis may be different in unionized settings governed by a collective bargaining agreement. If you are working with a union, you should consult with your Fisher Phillips counsel before proceeding with any mandatory vaccination plan.

Conclusion

Although the EEOC seems to permit mandating vaccinations of employees in certain circumstances, most employers should consider encouraging rather than mandating vaccinations due to potential related risks. Whether you simply encourage or mandate vaccinations, you should be prepared with at least a policy framework and a communications plan as wider availability of the vaccine draws closer. 

Article courtesy of Fisher Phillips 

Will a Biden Administration Push to Expand Paid-Leave Benefits?

November 24 - Posted at 9:19 AM Tagged: , , , , , ,

Federal coronavirus-related paid-leave benefits are set to expire at the end of the year, and if those benefits aren’t extended, some workers may be left without coverage as the pandemic persists through the winter months.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which took effect in April 2020, is a temporary measure that provides COVID-19-related paid-sick-leave and paid-family-leave benefits to certain eligible workers.

Will FFCRA’s emergency benefits be renewed as the coronavirus crisis continues? Will President-elect Joe Biden make expanding paid leave a priority? Here’s what employment attorneys had to say.

FFCRA Leave

Coronavirus cases in the U.S. recently hit record highs with more than 150,000 new cases reported each day since Nov. 16, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. FFCRA benefits will end on Dec. 31 unless Congress renews them. 

For now, many employers are required to provide up to 80 hours of paid-sick-leave benefits if employees need leave to care for their own or someone else’s coronavirus-related issues. The legislation also updated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to provide workers with job-protected, paid leave when they can’t work—either onsite or remotely—because their son’s or daughter’s school or child care service is closed due to the public health emergency.  

FFCRA’s emergency paid-leave provisions apply to certain public employers and businesses with fewer than 500 employees, and there are exceptions available for small businesses and companies that employ health care workers.

Will FFCRA leave be extended? With the upcoming change in the presidential administration, employment attorneys are divided in their predictions.

“It will be renewed,” predicted Philip Voluck, an attorney with Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck in Blue Bell, Pa. He said it may be renewed by the Trump administration, noting the Biden administration does not assume office until Jan. 20, 2021. Voluck said new legislation may expand the FFCRA’s reach and clarify employer’s paid-leave obligations.

Employers covered by FFCRA earn refundable tax credits that reimburse them for the cost of providing paid leave related to COVID-19. “These need to be carried over to any new legislation to ease the financial strain on covered employers,” he noted.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wants Congress to finalize a new coronavirus economic stimulus bill before the end of the year, but that might be difficult during a lame-duck session, according to Politico.

Sara Jodka, an attorney with Dickinson Wright in Columbus, Ohio, believes that there will be a FFCRA extension or supplemental legislation but not until Biden takes office. Biden’s current COVID-19-related leave plans would expand FFCRA to provide for 100 percent wage coverage up to $1,400 a week, provide for paid leave during a mandatory quarantine or isolation period, and expand coverage to domestic workers, caregivers, gig-economy workers and other independent contractors. Employers would also continue to receive tax deductions and reimbursement for COVID-19-related paid leave.

Charles Thompson, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in San Francisco, noted that the Biden administration may focus on other coronavirus priorities, such as putting money directly in people’s pockets.

Nationwide Paid Leave

In addition to the FFCRA’s paid-leave provisions, there is the longer-term consideration of whether a lasting nationwide paid-leave law may garner bipartisan support.

In the 116th Congress, Democrats and Republicans put forward several proposals to provide paid leave to new parents. In December 2019, Congress passed paid parental leave for qualifying federal employees. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said he “will not stop fighting until this benefit is provided to all workers nationwide.”

Biden supports the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which is known as the FAMILY Act. The proposed legislation would provide workers with paid time off to care for a newborn or recently adopted child, take care of themselves or family members with serious health conditions, or care for military family members and help them prepare for deployments.

Jodka noted, however, that the Biden-Harris campaign platform focused on expanding other employee rights, such as making it easier for workers to organize and collectively bargain, increasing the federal minimum wage, and extending overtime pay to more workers.

She thinks any paid-leave law will likely stem from an amendment to the FMLA, like the FFCRA did. “Employers, especially smaller ones, struggled—and continue to struggle—to meet the paid-leave requirements of the FFCRA,” she said, “so it is likely that first attention will be to the COVID-19 response with a discussion of a federal paid-leave law well off into the future.”

State and Local Trends

Some states and cities already provide paid leave, and their laws operate independently of federal law, Voluck explained. “States will likely become even more generous with paid leave,” he predicted.

SHRM has long advocated for a voluntary federal framework for paid leave, rather than a fragmented patchwork of state and local leave laws, and recently outlined employers’ need for consistency and simplicity in a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.

Thompson thinks that states and local jurisdictions “will continue to be at the forefront of requiring that employers provide COVID-related leave.”

Many jurisdictions—including Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington and Washington, D.C.—have enacted their own emergency paid-leave laws in response to the pandemic. Many cities in California and elsewhere have also passed supplemental leave ordinances. Employers should note that state and local COVID-19-related paid-leave laws may have different expiration dates.

“I think state laws will continue to trend upward in favor of paid-leave law mandates,” Jodka said. “The most typical is a paid-sick-leave mandate, and with COVID-19 cases rising, the need to value proper medical care and time away from work without risking losing a paycheck is at an all-time high.”

2021 FSA Contribution Cap Stays at $2,750

October 27 - Posted at 2:42 PM Tagged: , , , , ,

For 2021, the dollar limit for employee contributions to health flexible spending accounts (health FSAs) through salary reductions remains unchanged at $2,750, the IRS announced on Oct. 27 when it issued Revenue Procedure 2020-45.

For health FSA plans that permit the carryover of unused amounts, the maximum carryover amount for 2021 is $550, an increase of $50 from the original 2020 carryover limit.

The guidance also includes annual cost of living adjustments (COLAs), if any were made, for other employee benefit plans. For instance, for tax year 2021, the monthly limit for qualified transportation benefits remains $270, as is the monthly limit for qualified parking.

The IRS a day earlier announced 2021 contribution limits for 401(k) and similar defined contribution plans and annual limit adjustments for defined benefit pension plans.

The IRS released 2021 HSA contribution limits in May, giving employers and HSA administrators plenty of time to adjust their systems for the new year. The individual HSA contribution limit will be $3,600 (up from $3,550) and the family contribution limit will be $7,200 (up from $7,100).

Increased Carryover Cap

IRS Notice 2020-33, issued on May 12 as part of COVID-19 relief, raised the amount of funds that health FSA plans can carry over for 2020 to $550, up from $500. For 2021, the maximum carryover amount remains $550.

There are two options for FSA extensions; employers can adopt either or neither, but can’t offer both:

  • Carryover. If an FSA plan has the carryover feature, participants can roll over up to $550 of unused FSA dollars to the next year but will forfeit any excess over $550 at year-end.
  • Grace period. An optional grace period gives employees an additional two-and-a-half months to incur new expenses using prior-year FSA funds. At the end of the grace period in mid-March, all unspent funds must be forfeited.

New CDC Guidance Makes Contact Tracing More Difficult for Employers

- Posted at 2:38 PM Tagged: , , , , ,

Employers will have to revise their COVID-19-related safety policies and practices to meet new guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on what it means to have been in “close contact” with an infected person.

Under prior guidance, the CDC defined a close contact as someone who spent at least 15 consecutive minutes within six feet of an infected person, thus putting the individual at higher risk of contracting the virus.

The CDC updated its guidance to define a close contact as:

Someone who was within six feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period starting from two days before illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, two days prior to test specimen collection) until the time the patient is isolated.

“We are now looking at cumulative rather than consecutive,” said Jonathan A. Segal, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia. So a person who was exposed three times in a 24-hour period—for five minutes during each encounter—would meet the definition.

“This broader definition most likely will have a big impact on schools, hospitals and workplaces where individuals have several separate interactions with others—totaling 15 minutes or more—over the course of a day,” said Catherine Burgett, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd in Columbus, Ohio.

What should employers do in light of the new guidelines? “Revise your current policies and forms based on the new definition of close contact and … wear a mask,” Burgett said.

Taking Action

An important consequence of this revision is the impact it will have on employers’ ability to maintain staffing because it establishes a much lower threshold trigger for required quarantine.

Employers should have infected employees identify others who worked within six feet of them, for 15 minutes or more, within the 48 hours prior to the sick individual showing symptoms. This is being called this the “6-15-48 analysis.”

This new guidance will make contact tracing using the CDC’s 6-15-48 analysis even more difficult. When determining whether an employee has been exposed to an infected worker for 15 minutes or more, employers will now need to look at brief interactions between employees and infected workers that may occur several times a day, instead of one or two prolonged exposures.

The CDC advises most employers to send home any employees who have had a risk of exposure under this analysis. Those employees should maintain social distancing and self-monitor for 14 days from the exposure.

All industries will be impacted, but the most significant impact will be to those businesses that are not considered to be critical infrastructure workplaces. Those businesses will find that more employees will be required to be quarantined under this new rule, and thus will have fewer employees available to work in their facilities.

If a business is considered essential, however, CDC guidelines say exposed employees can continue to work onsite while self-monitoring and wearing a face mask. Employers that are considered critical infrastructure will be less impacted, because even their directly exposed employees can still work, as long as they are asymptomatic and the company takes the steps required by the CDC.

Revising Policies

As a result of the new definition of close contact, employers should review their COVID-19-related infection-control plans with this new definition in mind and, at a minimum, update their contact-tracing questionnaires.

Instead of simply asking infected workers who they were near for a prolonged period of time, employers may want to view surveillance video, documents that show when an employee clocked in and out, and other items that will help determine workers’ interactions.

Employers may also want to consider obtaining a waiver from the infected worker in order to share his or her diagnosis. This will allow the employer to interview employees about their interactions with the worker to determine who was exposed to the infected individual.

DOL Revises COVID-19 Leave Regulations

September 14 - Posted at 1:37 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Employers of healthcare providers will soon be required to provide paid sick leave and partially paid family leave to a broader category of employees, and all employers subject to the law now have clarification on a number of other obligations, thanks to a revised set of regulations released by the Labor Department late Friday afternoon. After a federal court judge recently knocked down the agency’s first attempt to provide employers with practical direction in complying with the Families First Coronavirus Act (FFCRA), the Labor Department issued a second set of rules on September 11 that in some instances revise and in other instances clarify employer compliance duties. Here are the key changes and clarifications, which are slated to go into effect on September 16, that employers need to know about:

  1. The definition of workers deemed “health care providers” – whose employers may exclude them from coverage under the law – was narrowed to only include employees who are health care providers under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and those providing diagnostic services, preventive services, treatment services, or other services that are integrated with and necessary to the provision of patient care.
  2. The agency reaffirmed that leave can only be taken only if the employee has work available from which to take leave.
  3. Employees must still obtain their employer’s approval to take leave on an intermittent basis.
  4. Employees must give their employer information to support their need for leave as soon as practicable.
  5. The Labor Department revised the rules to correct an inconsistency regarding when an employee may be required to give notice of family and medical leave to their employer.
(more…)

How To Balance School Re-Openings And COVID-19 Workplace Leave: FAQs For Employers

August 28 - Posted at 11:00 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

As the summer draws to a close, schools are announcing their re-opening plans, which vary widely across states and localities. Some schools plan to remain open several days a week and direct students to attend remotely the other days. Others will split classes into morning and afternoon sessions, allowing students attending in the morning to participate remotely at home for the rest of day and vice versa. Still others will require physical attendance at all times, while some will choose to operate entirely under a remote learning model.

In light of these different reopening plans, employers need to understand how the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) affects the leave rights of employees for each of these different types of school schedules. The below serves as a list of answers to frequently asked questions related to the issues you could face as schools begin to reopen.  

The Basics: FFCRA Leave Benefits For Working Parents

Under the FFCRA, eligible employees are entitled to Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) and/or expanded family and medical leave (EFML) if they are unable to work or telework because they need to care for their son or daughter if (a) the child’s school or place of care is closed, or (b) the child care provider is unavailable, due to COVID-19-related reasons. The FFCRA regulations provide that an employee may take leave to care for their child only when the employee needs to, and actually is, caring for the child. The Department of Labor (DOL) has advised that “generally, an employee does not need to take such leave if another suitable individual — such as a co-parent, co-guardian, or the usual child care provider — is available to provide the care the employee’s child needs.”

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is a child’s school or place of care deemed “closed” for purposes of the FFCRA if it has moved to online instruction or to another model in which children are required to complete assignments at home?
Yes. If the physical location where an employee’s child received instruction or care is closed, the school or place of care is deemed “closed” for purposes of the EPSL and EFML. The DOL has instructed that this is true even if some or all instruction is being provided online or whether, through another format such as “distance learning,” the child is still expected or required to complete assignments. But this seemingly does not contemplate a hybrid model (discussed below) and likely pertains only to those circumstances where the child is not reporting to a physical location. Also note that in order to be eligible for FFCRA leave, employees must still certify that there is no other suitable person that can care for the child.

2. Is an employee entitled to FFCRA leave if they choose to keep the child at home or have the child homeschooled even though the child’s school is open?
No. The DOL has stated that employees do not need to take leave if their usual child care provider is available to provide care. But if the school is operating on a reduced capacity due to COVID-19, which then necessitates remote learning for the child, FFCRA leave could be available. See DOL guidance on summer camps

3. Would an employee qualify for FFCRA leave if their child’s school is open but the employee chooses remote learning based on a doctor’s recommendation due to the child’s vulnerability to COVID-19?
EFMLA is likely not available to the employee because the child’s school is not closed. The employee might be eligible for EPSL if they can demonstrate that they are taking leave to care for a person who has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19 (permitted reason #4 under EPSL). It is unclear however, whether a recommendation for remote learning is the same as a recommended self-quarantine for purposes of the FFCRA.

4. Will employees be eligible for FFCRA leave if a child’s school is operating on a hybrid model (whereby children are to alternate between physical attendance and remote learning)?
Likely yes. While this scenario is not specifically addressed in the statute or DOL guidance, one would argue that the child’s school is technically “closed” to that child on the days when the child is required to participate via remote learning. Thus, if the employee cannot work or telework during those days, they should qualify for FFCRA leave.

It is uncertain, however, whether a parent may take the leave consecutively or intermittently to coincide with the days and times the child is home remote learning. If the child’s school requires them to attend school daily (e.g., child attends school half of the day and spends the other half remote learning), leave is likely to be taken consecutively. If, on the other hand, the child’s schedule requires the child to physically attend school only on certain days of the week, leave is likely to be taken intermittently. Note that while the DOL regulations mandate employer consent for intermittent leave, a New York federal court recently struck out this requirement as unreasonable.

5. Would an employee qualify for FFCRA leave if the child’s school is open but the child’s before or after school program is closed?
Yes. The DOL defines a “place of care” as a physical location in which care is provided for the child. The physical location does not need to be solely dedicated to such care. Examples include day care facilities, preschools, before and after school care programs, schools, homes, summer camps, summer enrichment programs, and respite care programs.

6. Can an employer deny FFCRA leave to an employee who previously teleworked while the child’s school was closed but intends to request leave if the child’s school remains closed for the fall?
No. The DOL has made clear that simply because an employee has been teleworking despite having their children at home does not mean the employee is prevented from now taking leave to care for the child whose school is closed for a COVID-19-related reason.

7. Can more than one parent take paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave simultaneously to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed, or child care provider is unavailable, due to COVID-19 related reasons?
No. An employee may take EPSL or EFML leave to care for their child only when they need to, and actually are, caring for the child if they are unable to work or telework as a result of providing care. Generally, employees do not need to take such leave if a co-parent, co-guardian, or the usual child care provider is available to provide the care the child needs.

8. Can an employee take paid FFCRA leave to care for a child who is 18 years old or older?
It depends. EPSL and EFML leave may only be taken to care for an employee’s non-disabled child if they are under the age of 18. If the employee’s child is 18 years of age or older with a disability and cannot care for themselves due to that disability, the employee may take EPSL and EFML leave to care for the child if their school or place of care is closed or the child care provider is unavailable due to COVID-19-related reasons and the employee is unable to work or telework as a result. Additionally, EPSL is available to care for an individual who is subject to a federal, state, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19 or has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19. If an employee has a need to care for a child age 18 or older who needs care for these circumstances, the employee may take EPSL if they are unable to work or telework as a result of providing care. But in no event may the employee’s total paid sick leave exceed two weeks.

9. Can an employee use EPSL for child care purposes if the employee already used up their 80 hours of EPSL for other permitted purposes?
No. The DOL regulations state that employees are entitled to only a one-time use of 80 hours of EPSL, regardless of the reason. However, if an employee has not exhausted their full EPSL allotment, they may use the remaining time for other permitted reasons.

10. If a new employee has used up their EPSL leave allotment while employed at their previous employer, are they entitled to another 80 hours of EPSL leave with the new employer?
No. The DOL regulations specify that any person is limited to a total of 80 hours of EPSL. An employee who has taken all such leave and then changes employers is not entitled to additional EPSL from their new employer. However, an employee who has taken some (but fewer than 80 hours of) EPSL and then changes employers is entitled to the remaining portion of such leave from their new employer, but only if the new employer is covered by the FFCRA.

11. Can employees use EFML leave if they have already exhausted all of their FMLA leave allotment for the benefit year?
No. An employee may only take a total of 12 workweeks for FMLA or EFMLA reasons during the employer’s designated benefit year.

12. Does EFML contain the same limitation contained in the FMLA that requires spouses who work for the same employer to share the 12 weeks of leave (instead of each getting 12 weeks)?
No. Under 29 CFR 201(b), spouses who work for the same employer can be required to share a combined 12 weeks of FMLA leave to bond with their new child or care for their own parent with a serious health condition. The EFMLA does not provide for the same carveout. But keep in mind that while both employees who work for the same employer would each be eligible for EFMLA leave, they would likely not be able to both take leave to care for their child since they have to certify that there is not alternative suitable caregiver. 

13. What supporting documents must employees provide to their employers for FFCRA purposes?
When requesting EPSL or EFML leave, employees must provide the following information to their employers, either orally or in writing:

  • Employee’s name;
  • The date(s) for which employee requests leave;
  • The reason for leave; and
  • A statement that the employee is unable to work because of a FFCRA qualifying reason.

If the employee requests leave because they are subject to a quarantine or isolation order or to care for an individual subject to such an order, they should additionally provide the name of the government entity that issued the order. If the employee requests leave to self-quarantine based on the advice of a health care provider or to care for an individual who is self-quarantining based on such advice, they should also provide the name of the health care provider who gave the advice.

If the employee requests leave to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed, or child care provider is unavailable, they must also provide:

  • The name of the child;
  • The name of the school, place of care, or child care provider that has closed or become unavailable; and
  • A statement that no other suitable person is available to care for the child.

Notably, a New York federal court recently held that supporting documentation may not be required as a precondition for FFCRA leave. Thus, employers should ensure documentation is not required to commence the leave under the FFCRA. Supporting documentation can be submitted after the leave has commenced.

Labor Department Issues Guidance On Tracking Employees’ Teleworking Hours

August 27 - Posted at 11:27 AM Tagged: , , , , , ,

The U.S. Department of Labor just released a Field Assistance Bulletin (FAB) to provide employers with guidance regarding their wage and hour obligations to track the hours of employees working remotely or teleworking. Importantly, while the August 24 FAB directly speaks to employers’ Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requirements under remote work arrangements that have arisen amid COVID-19, it also applies to all other telework or remote work arrangements. This guidance may be especially useful to employers who are new to the remote work world.

The Basics: What Does Federal Law Require?

As a reminder, the FLSA requires that an employer compensate employees for all hours it “suffers or permits” them to work. This means that employees must be compensated for time that may be unscheduled, but during which the employee still performs work. Thus, if an employer knows or has reason to believe that work is being performed, the time must be counted as hours worked. 

A challenge for employers is preventing work that it does not want performed. Notably, the employer cannot rely exclusively on its stated policy. Indeed, the guidance notes that it is not easy to define when an employer “has reason to believe that work is being performed.” The FAB reinforces that employers are not required to compensate employees for work they do not know about and have no reason to know about. 

New Challenges Raised By Remote Work

Rather, employers are only required to compensate employees for hours worked that are based on “actual knowledge” or “constructive knowledge” of that work. Employers will be deemed to have “actual knowledge” of employees’ regularly scheduled hours and through employee reports or other notification “actual knowledge” of the hours worked. Employers might be deemed to have “constructive knowledge” if it could have acquired information regarding additional work done through the exercise of “reasonable diligence.” 

Importantly, the FAB clarifies that “reasonable diligence” is limited to what the employer should have known, not what it “could have known.” This means employers are not necessarily required to “cross-reference” phone records or otherwise review other non-payroll records to determine whether or not employees were working beyond their scheduled hours, especially during these remote work times. 

What Should Employers Do?

Instead, you should provide employees with a process and procedure to report hours worked, particularly to ensure that unscheduled hours also are recorded. If the employee fails to utilize the process or procedure, you might be able to make an argument that the employee has prevented you from satisfying your obligation to compensate employees and thwarted your efforts to prevent unwanted work. Thus, you may be able to avoid FLSA liability for failing to compensate employees for work performed that you did not know about and that the employee didn’t advise you about. 

You should review your remote work and telework policies to ensure that they provide clear guidance to employees about your expectations regarding schedules and working hours. You should also implement a policy or procedure by which employees can report work that was performed outside their regularly scheduled time frames or their recorded hours.

Conclusion

Overall, you should exercise reasonable diligence to ensure that you capture all hours worked (whether scheduled or not, just as they must for employees working onsite). But you can take some solace in the USDOL’s guidance reminding us all that “constructive knowledge” is not without limits.

4 Common COVID-19 Misunderstandings That Could Place Your Company At Legal Risk

August 23 - Posted at 12:23 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued constantly changing guidance for employers that many view as complex, confusing, and impractical. In its perplexing web of guidelines, the CDC recommends that companies take several actions to protect workers from contracting COVID-19, like self-isolating sick employees, quarantining exposed employees, screening employees for symptoms prior to work, and installing partitions to protect public-facing employees.

Given their complexity, some of these directives are often not fully understood by companies. Further complicating matters, many of the recommendations have never been previously undertaken by employers, leading to misapplication. Worst of all, other guidelines are simply not feasible for some employers, leaving them with the tough decision of not following the CDC directive in order to stay in business.

Unfortunately, ignoring or misunderstanding these confusing guidelines, like the four commonly misinterpreted guidance listed below, could lead to legal risks for your company.

1. Returning Exposed Employees To Work Too Early After A Negative Test

Of the innumerable companies that have sought our assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, the most common misunderstanding of CDC guidance we see involves returning to work employees who have been directly exposed to COVID-19 too early following a negative test. Employers falling under the CDC’s general business guidance (not critical infrastructure employers) should quarantine employees for 14 days since their last direct exposure to a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case, defined as being within 6 feet of the infected person, for 15 minutes or more, within the 48 hours prior to the sick individual showing symptoms, until the infected person is released from self-isolation (“6-15-48”).

Critically, the 14-day quarantine period cannot be cut short by a negative test due to the lengthy incubation period of COVID-19. This is an often-misunderstood CDC guideline, which even the agency has recognized:

Note that recommendations for discontinuing isolation in persons known to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 could, in some circumstances, appear to conflict with recommendations on when to discontinue quarantine for persons known to have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2. CDC recommends 14 days of quarantine after exposure based on the time it takes to develop illness if infected. Thus, it is possible that a person known to be infected could leave isolation earlier than a person who is quarantined because of the possibility they are infected.

Thus, an exposed employee cannot return to work during the 14-day quarantine period following a negative COVID-19 test received on, for example, day three, seven, or 12 of that period. Returning exposed employees too early due to a negative test could lead to preventable COVID-19 infections if co-workers are exposed to individuals who should be quarantined and develop the virus after a negative test.

2. Miscalculating The Appropriate Quarantine Period For Those Exposed To An Infected Household Member

Along those same lines, employers often misunderstand CDC guidance when calculating the length of the quarantine period for a worker who has been exposed to an infected spouse or household member. The key here is that the 14-day quarantine period does not begin until the last day the employee was directly exposed, using the 6-15-48 analysis above, to the spouse or household member prior to the infected person being released from self-isolation. Thus, if the employee is directly exposed to the spouse or household member on days one through 10, the quarantine period does not begin until day 10.

Accordingly, the worker may ultimately miss 24 days of work, instead of 14, if directly exposed to the spouse or household member every day until the spouse is released from self-isolation. The CDC addresses this confusing guidance here, noting that the exposed employee should stay home until 14 days have elapsed after the last exposure.

3. Not Notifying Employees Of A Confirmed COVID-19 Case In Your Workplace

The Fisher Phillips COVID-19 litigation tracker has been following closely the number of lawsuits filed with COVID-19-related claims. The prevalence of claims relating to an employer’s failure to notify employees of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the workplace is a troubling trend. Throughout the pandemic, transparency by employers has been a critical tool in maintaining positive employee morale. Failure to do so can lead to negative consequences, including not only lawsuits, but Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaints and employees refusing to work, as well.

Although it may not be clear to some employers, the CDC recommends not only informing directly exposed employees (6-15-48) of a confirmed COVID-19 case in the workplace, but also to inform other “employees of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” The CDC defines “possible exposure” to COVID-19 as those who do not meet the 6-15-48 parameters. Thus, when a confirmed COVID-19 case occurs in your workplace, remember to inform those employees who worked near the infected worker (e.g., the same hallway, area, or corridor), even though they weren’t directly exposed.

4. Incorrectly Believing That Wearing Face Coverings Trumps The 6-15-48 Analysis

When analyzing whether an employee has been exposed to an infected co-worker, employers often misconstrue the impact of wearing face coverings to prevent the spread of the virus. Although the CDC recommends wearing masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, whether employees are wearing masks while directly exposed (6-15-48) to an infected person does not change that analysis. The determination of whether someone should be quarantined for 14 days does not change if the individuals at issue are wearing masks, another point of confusion specifically clarified by the CDC:

Note: This is irrespective of whether the person with COVID-19 or the contact was wearing a mask or whether the contact was wearing respiratory personal protective equipment (PPE).

To ensure the safety of your workers, remember to quarantine all employees who meet the 6-15-48 analysis, even if they were wearing a face covering while exposed.

Legal Risks For Not Following CDC Guidelines

Although CDC guidance is not a law or regulation, such guidelines can be construed by OSHA and the courts as the legal standard that defines what actions a company should take to protect its workers during this unprecedented time. In fact, the Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor has already indicated that OSHA could rely upon the general duty clause, which the agency can enforce in the absence of a standard on point, to enforce the CDC’s guidelines for employers on COVID-19.

If your company fails to follow a CDC guideline, it could receive a citation under OSHA’s general duty clause and, if classified as willful (e.g., reckless disregard for, or deliberate indifference towards, employee safety), the maximum penalty for each citation would be $134,937. Keep in mind that state OSHA plans, not regulated by the federal government, can adopt emergency COVID-19 regulations, which have the same impact as any other OSHA regulation, and enforce those against employers who fail to comply with them. Virginia recently became the first state adopt such a regulation, which includes notification requirements that vary from those of the CDC.

Although it is an evolving area of the law, claimants’ counsel will argue to courts that the violation of a CDC guideline is evidence of negligence, willfulness, or intent on behalf of the employer. Plaintiffs’ counsel will assert that the CDC guideline has established the level of care or duty owed to an employee or other claimant, and that the duty was breached by the company.

This argument will be made regardless of the jurisdiction, venue, or type of claim, including workers’ compensation claims, claims filed directly by an employee seeking recovery above and beyond workers’ compensation benefits, and those filed by third-parties (e.g. visitors, employee spouses) against companies. To protect your company from such claims, remember to follow these steps to minimize your exposure.

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