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President Biden’s latest COVID-19 stimulus package – the American Rescue Plan – has been passed by Congress and will become law once the president signs it into effect this Friday (3/12/21). The measure provides $1.9 trillion in economic relief, with many of the specific items directly affecting employers. What do businesses need to know about this finalized legislation?

What Is Not Included In The American Rescue Plan?

Before examining the areas of law that changed, it is just as important to review portions of the initial proposal which were not included in the final version signed by the president. The three most critical pieces NOT included:

  • $15 Minimum Wage: Despite House passage of a bill including a minimum wage hike and efforts by Senator Bernie Sanders and others, the Senate (with bipartisan support) removed the minimum wage provisions from the American Rescue Plan before sending it to Biden for signature.
  • Elimination of Tip Credit: Though it has gotten little press, buried in the provisions to raise the minimum wage was language which would have phased the tip credit out of existence. Hospitality employers hope this is more than a temporary reprieve.
  • Paid Leave: The White House originally planned for the plan to include paid leave for employees needing to be absent for COVID-19 reasons, including to get vaccinated or to recover from side effects related to the vaccination. These paid leave benefits were not included in the House bill and were not added as the bill proceeded.

What You Should Do: While these provisions did not make it into the final American Rescue Plan, the White House and Democratic leaders have stated their intent to introduce new legislation in the future to fulfill these campaign promises.

Extension Of FFCRA Tax Credits

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) expired on December 31, 2020 – and with it, covered employers’ obligation to provide emergency paid sick leave and emergency family and medical leave. Shortly before the end of the year, Congress extended the tax credit for employers who voluntarily continued to provide such paid leave through March 31, 2021. 

President Biden’s original vision for the American Rescue Plan proposed to extend and expand emergency paid leave obligations in several key areas. However, the House version of the current COVID-19 relief bill does not extend the employer obligation to provide paid leave. Instead, the legislation merely extends the tax credit for voluntary provision of leave through September 30, 2021 and makes related changes. These provisions of the relief bill include the following:

  • Extends the tax credits available for employers who voluntarily provide FFCRA leave from March 31, 2021 to September 30, 2021.
  • Provides that the tax credits are available for paid sick leave and paid family leave provided for the additional following qualifying reasons:
    • the employee is obtaining immunization (vaccination) related to COVID-19;
    • the employee is recovering from any injury, disability, illness or condition related to such vaccination; or
    • the employee is seeking or awaiting the results of a diagnostic test or medical diagnosis for COVID-19 (or their employer has requested such a test or diagnosis).
  • Adds non-discrimination rules to provide that no tax credit is available if the employer, in determining availability of the paid leave, discriminates against highly compensated employees, full-time employees, or employees on the basis of tenure with the employer. This provision appears designed to compel employers who make the decision to voluntarily provide leave do so in a uniform manner, without discriminating against certain categories of workers.
  • Re-sets the 10-day limit for the tax credit for paid sick leave under the FFCRA beginning April 1, 2021. As a result, an employer could voluntarily provide an additional 10 days of FFCRA paid sick leave beginning April 1, 2021, and would be eligible for a tax credit for doing so. But employers are not required to do so.

Even though the current legislation does not extend the employer mandate to provide paid FFCRA leave, this is likely not the last conversation on this topic. There are indications that the Biden administration may attempt to resurrect pieces of the American Rescue Plan that did not make it into this bill into subsequent legislation in the near future.  

What You Should DoDetermine which, if any, state and local paid sick leave laws may apply to you as many have been extended beyond the December 31, 2020 expiration of the FFCRA paid leave mandate. In addition, you should continue to monitor developments at the federal level. Although an extension of paid leave was not included in this stimulus package, it is still on the Biden administration’s and many members of Congress’s “to do” list. We could see new leave mandate proposals in the immediate future, so this will be one area to watch closely.

Boost For Vaccine Efforts

The American Rescue Plan provides over $15 billion aimed toward enhancing, expanding and improving the nationwide distribution and administration of vaccines, including the support of efforts to increase access, especially in underserved communities, to increase vaccine confidence and to fund more research, development, manufacturing, and procurement of vaccines and related supplies as needed. The upshot? We may see the widespread proliferation of vaccine availability even earlier than expected.

What You Should Do: Despite developments indicating that vaccines are likely to become much more widely available in the short term, many employers remain unprepared to deal with related issues. Those issues include not only the initial administration process, but also the extent to which the greater prevalence of vaccinated employees may (or may not) affect your safety protocols in terms of mask mandates, physical distancing, and related rules. 

Relief For Small Businesses

The American Rescue Plan Act provides additional funding for small businesses, with a focused effort on those in hard-hit industries like restaurants and bars. The new bill provides $25 billion for a new Small Business Administration program focused on supporting restaurants and other food and drinking establishments. These grants are available for up to $10 million for those eligible and can be used to pay expenses like payroll, mortgage, rent, utilities, and food and beverages.

The bill provides an additional $7 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides small businesses with the potential for 100% forgivable loans. The additional PPP funding brings the total for the current round of the program to over $813 billion. Likewise, both bills expand PPP eligibility for certain nonprofit organizations.

The new law also provides $15 billion to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) Advance program designed to provide economic relief to businesses currently experiencing a temporary loss of revenue due to COVID-19. Like the PPP, the EIDL program is administered through the SBA to help qualifying businesses meet financial obligations and operating expenses that could have been met had the disaster not occurred. Priority funding is also allocated to businesses with less than 10 employees that the pandemic has severely impacted.

Finally, the law includes funding under the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, which had previously appropriated $15 billion in the December 2020 stimulus package. Eligible entities for the SVOG include live venue operators or promoters, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, museum operators, motion picture theatre operators, and talent representatives. Eligible entities for the SVOG program can also qualify for loans under the PPP.

What You Should Do: If you’re a small business operating in a hard-hit industry such as the hospitality sector, you should quickly determine eligibility for funding. Even if you’re not a bar or a restaurant, you might still be eligible for economic assistance through the various grants or loan programs detailed in the plan if the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted your business.  

Unemployment Benefits

President Biden considers it imperative that workers impacted by the pandemic not lose out on emergency enhanced unemployment benefits, but the expanded unemployment assistance under the CARES Act and Stimulus 2.0 are set to expire soon in mid-March. Without an extension, millions of unemployed Americans impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic would be impacted. Luckily, both the House’s and Senate’s versions of the American Rescue Plan increase and further extend these unemployment benefits. However, there were some key differences between the two versions of the proposal, and the finalized version differs from the initial proposal.

The finalized legislation retains the $300 per week unemployment benefits, however, the version signed into law extends these benefits until September 6, which is more in alignment with Biden’s proposed outline for the American Rescue Plan. 

Another major change related to the unemployment benefits in the finalized version is the addition of a provision making the first $10,200 in unemployment received in 2020 non-taxable for households with incomes under $150,000. This provision will go a long way to address the looming concerns for the millions of Americans currently on unemployment insurance.

What You Should DoThere is not much for employers to do in response to this provision of the bill, as it is primarily geared toward workers. However, it is important to understand the lay of the land in terms of unemployment insurance, as certain industries may face obstacles in hiring for certain positions for the time being. You should be aware that the benefits will expire on September 6 and adjust your hiring plans accordingly.

Stimulus Payments

The American Rescue Plan means that the federal government will send $1,400 stimulus checks on top of the $600 payments issued through the December stimulus bill. Under the structure agreed to during lawmaking negotiations, the payments will phase out at a quicker rate for those at higher income levels compared with the initial proposal floated by President Biden. Those earning $75,000 per year and couples earning $150,000 will still receive the full $1,400-per-person benefit but those earning more than $80,000 and couples earning more than $160,000 will not be eligible.

Tax Credits And Benefits

The bill expands three important tax credits: the child tax credit, the earned income credit, and the employee retention credit. The bill also increases certain health and pension benefits.    

  • The bill increases the child tax credit from $2,000 per child under age 17 to $3,000 for those age six through 17 and to $3,600 for those under age 6. Currently, the credit phases out at $200,000 for single tax return filers and $400,000 for joint filers. The new bill lowers those thresholds to $75,000 and $150,000 respectively. Another key provision makes the credit fully refundable – meaning that those who pay little or no taxes will still be able to take full advantage of the credit. Recipients can receive monthly installments (which would facilitate paying monthly living expenses) or a lump sum.
  • The earned income credit for lower income taxpayers has also been expanded. The amount has nearly tripled and the minimum age to claim to the credit is reduced from 25 to 19. No upper age limit is imposed under the new bill.
  • The employee retention credit (ERC) is extended through December 31, 2021. It also is expanded to include certain start-up businesses (with an ERC capped at $50,000 per quarter) that otherwise would not have qualified for the ERC.

The bill also provides for a 100% COBRA premium subsidy effective April 1 through September 2021 for those who are involuntarily terminated and want to remain on their employer’s health insurance. The employer would pass along the subsidy so that qualifying individuals would pay nothing for their COBRA coverage during this period.   

Finally, the bill expands the class of those who are entitled to help with the cost of their insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Consumers would be able to receive assistance if their premiums exceed 8.5% of their incomes rather than the current income cutoff of $51,000. The bill provides over $24 billion to shore up childcare facilities which have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. It provides help to childcare workers making less than $12 per hour. 

Conclusion

We will keep a close eye on further legislative proposals and provide updates as warranted.

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.

Returning Employees To Work Following Unemployment Requires A Tailored 10-Step Plan Of Action

May 14 - Posted at 8:30 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

As businesses gradually begin to ramp up and bring employees back to work, you may soon need to figure out what to do when employees who are receiving unemployment benefits refuse to return to work. After all, they may be reluctant or disincentivized to return to the job, especially if they can turn down your offer and still collect robust unemployment benefits.

As with all unemployment issues, the solution may differ from state to state – and employee to employee. But while the answers will vary depending on your workplace and individual employee circumstances, you can take steps now to put yourself in the best position to respond to such situations. We recommend an individualized 10-step plan of action to minimize your return-to-work headaches.   

The $600 Dilemma

With the enactment of the CARES Act, employees qualifying for unemployment benefits are in line to receive an additional $600 benefit payment over and above the regular unemployment payment. This benefit is courtesy of the federal government program and continues through July 31, 2020. In many situations, however, the additional $600 benefit has created a disincentive for employees to return to work. This phenomenon has caused a dilemma for many employers (and employees) as businesses start to reopen.

At the lower end of the economic scale, many workers are receiving more from unemployment than they would earn from their regular wages. However, to remain eligible for unemployment benefits in all but a few circumstances, individuals who have been placed on a temporary layoff related to the COVID-19 pandemic must return to work if called back. And since most state unemployment agencies require or request that you notify them when you call an employee receiving unemployment back to work, the agency will likely deny ongoing benefits unless the employee can demonstrate good cause for refusing the offer.  

“Good Cause” And High-Risk Employees

The determination as to what constitutes good cause for the job refusal, however, will be viewed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and will be subject to agency review. The U.S. Department of Labor and many states have emphasized that an unreasonable fear over the risk of contracting the virus in the workplace is not enough to constitute good cause, and state agencies will likely deny unemployment claims if this is the only reason offered. 

Several states, however, including Washington, Colorado, Alaska, and Texas, have already adopted rules outlining when an employee’s refusal to return to work may rise to the level of good cause. These rules generally protect unemployment benefits for “high risk” or “vulnerable” employees, such as workers over 65 or with underlying medical conditions.

For example, Texas Governor Abbott has directed the Texas Workforce Commission to continue providing benefits even when the employee refuses an offer of suitable employment where (1) the employee is 65 or older or at higher risk for getting very sick from COVID-19; (2) the employee has a household member at high risk; (3) the employee or a household member has been diagnosed with COVID-19  (and not recovered); (4) the employee is under quarantine due to close contact or exposure to COVID-19; or (5) the employee has child care responsibilities and the school or daycare is closed (and employee has no available alternatives).  

10-Step Return-To-Work Plan To Minimize Unemployment Concerns

Given the complicated issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic, you should be careful to consider the best approach for your workplace and employees. A thoughtful and transparent return-to-work process will help ensure employee safety and boost morale. Here is a 10-point plan you should implement to ensure a smooth return-to-work for your organization.

  1. In all cases, the first step is to develop a plan of action to reopen the workplace that provides a safe work environment for the returning employees. The plan should be consistent with guidelines for return to work developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). OSHA requires employers to provide a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” The plan should include an assessment of risk based upon employee exposure levels to COVID-19 in the workplace, which will vary based upon the workplace and job. For example, a risk assessment will be different for an employee returning to an office setting (low risk) versus the risk to a worker on an assembly line (high risk). The risk assessment should also consider federal, state, and local laws to address high-risk or vulnerable employees.
  2. Create and disseminate a return-to-work communication that outlines all the steps you are taking to comply with the recommended safety protocols, including policies to address high-risk and vulnerable employees.
  3. As noted above, each state is approaching return-to-work situations differently. You should carefully assess the guidelines that apply to your operation before making any decisions regarding an employee’s refusal to return to work or continued employment.
  4. Continue to permit alternative work, including telework or work at an alternative location where feasible, and providing partial employment and work share opportunities.
  5. Clearly communicate the details of any return-to-work offer in writing (start date, hours to be worked, wages, job duties and location). 
  6. If a return-to-work offer is rejected, develop a plan to address for-cause job refusals, including consideration of high-risk and vulnerable employees.
  7. If required, report any refusal to return to work to your state unemployment agency.
  8. Be sure to document an individual’s refusal of an offer to return to work. This is particularly important if you have taken out loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. The Treasury Department recently indicated that an employer’s loan forgiveness amount will not be reduced if the employer’s written offer to rehire is refused.
  9. If an employee expresses concern about returning to work, keep the lines of communication open and try to determine and address any concerns, if possible. If applicable, engage in the interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation can be made before requiring the employee to return to work.
  10. Consider implementing a short-time compensation (STC) program, often called a shared work or workshare program, which allows employers to retain employees on a reduced schedule, while unemployment benefits make up some of the difference in income. 

What Else Should Employers Do?

As you begin the process of reopening, you may want to familiarize yourself with several alerts courtesy of Fisher Phillips LLP : 

Key Provisions of the CARES Act

March 30 - Posted at 10:43 AM Tagged: , , , , ,
On Friday (3/27/2020), the President officially signed into law an additional stimulus bill referred to as the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act).

The bill includes:
 
  • Direct dollars to Americans (up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child for individuals that make less than $75,000, ($150,000 for a couple) decreasing until an individual makes $100,000 and a couple make $200,000)
  • Enhanced unemployment benefits – $600 per week in benefits over the state allocation for four months
  • $367 billion for small businesses
  • $500 billion for large businesses
  • $150 billion for state and local governments
  • $130 billion for hospitals and medical providers
  • $30 billion for education payments
  • $25 billion for transit districts
  • $339 billion for federal agency programs of which the vast majority goes out through state and local governments

Key Legislative Provisions

  • The Paycheck Protection Program (the $367 billion for small businesses) – This program is designed to preserve small businesses and the paychecks of small business employees. The definition of small businesses is broad. It includes businesses and non-profit institutions that employ 500 or less.
  • Importantly, the law defines that small businesses that are located in more than one location can count each location as a separate small business, for certain industries. The bill allows businesses to borrow up to 250% of its average monthly payroll costs as long as the business can show that it was in existence on February 15th. The maximum loan is $10 million. If the borrowing firm maintains its payroll, and if the funds are used for payroll, benefits, mortgage payments or rent and utilities, the loan may be forgiven, and the Small Business Administration will pay the loan back.
  • Unemployment Benefits – In the U.S., unemployment programs are run by the states. The states administer the programs and the states set the benefits levels. The CARES Act continues to run the programs through the states but makes a number of changes. First, in the past, the unemployed had to wait a week to get benefits. The CARES Act waives that. Second, the bill increases the payments by $600 a week over the state set amount. This increased amount will run for four months.
  • The CARES Act provides the above mentioned $1,200 per person ($2,400 per couple) and $500 per child to individuals and families under the income guidelines.
  • The bill waives the 10% penalty for early withdrawals from retirement accounts.
  • The bill changes the charitable deduction laws. Taxpayers can deduct up to $300 in contributions even if they do not itemize their deductions.
  • The bill provides that there will be no costs for Coronavirus tests.
  • The bill allocates $500 billion for loans for larger businesses. The funds are administered by the Treasury. The money is only for loans and there are restrictions for firms that accept the loans. The loans run 5 years.
  • The bill allows firms to delay the payment of employer social security payroll taxes until the end of the year. The funds must be repaid – one half by the end of 2021 and the rest by the end of 2022.
  • The bill provides for a refundable payroll tax credit of wages paid by employers whose operations were suspended by the virus or whose gross receipts declined by 50 percent for the first $10,000 of wages.
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