Federal Employment Law: Guidance on Emergency FMLA and Paid Sick Leave Released

Attorney Matthew S. Okiishi

On April 6, 2020, the Department of Labor published its temporary rules for the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”). Our firm has written prior entries regarding the FFCRA and Covid-19’s impact on the workplace, and I previously noted that a significant portion of the FFCRA would require additional federal guidance to understand. The rules define qualifying reasons for leave, employer and employee notice obligations, and the small business exemption.

Key Definitions

Under the new rules, a “Child Care Provider” is a provider who receives compensation for providing child care services on a regular basis and is licensed under state law. However, a Child Care Provider does not need to be compensated or licensed if they are a family member or friend who “regularly cares for the employee’s child.”

“Place of Care” means the physical location where care is provided for the Employee’s child while the employee works for the employer.

“Son or Daughter” includes biological, adopted, and foster children. It also includes stepchildren, legal wards, or the child of a person standing in loco parentis. Son or Daughter can also include persons over the age of 18 when that person is incapable of self-care because of a mental or physical disability.

“Subject to a quarantine or isolation order” includes the “shelter in place” or other general orders issued by states and municipalities in response to the Covid-19 epidemic, and includes when a governmental authority has advised certain categories of citizens to shelter in place.

Application to Emergency FMLA Leave

The qualifying reason for Emergency FMLA leave is narrow, applying only to employees who are unable to work or telework due to the need to care for a Son or Daughter if the child’s school or Place of Care is closed or the Child Care Provider is unavailable due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But as stated previously, the definition of a “Child Care Provider” is quite broad, including family members and other persons who regularly care for a child out of a neighborly or familial bond. Similarly, a “Son or Daughter” includes the full spectrum of children and persons who are regularly under the care of a parent. As such, it would be improper for an employer to deny EFMLA leave to an employee because the child is not necessarily a biological relative or the Child Care Provider is not a licensed day care.

Paid Sick Leave Implications

The six reasons for paid sick leave have also been impacted by the new regulations:

1. Subject to a federal, state or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19.

Employees are only considered to be “subject to a quarantine or isolation order” when, but for being subject to the order, they would be able to perform work that is otherwise allowed by their employer. When the order shuts down the employer’s operations, an employee is not entitled to paid sick leave.

2. Advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 concerns.

A health care provider has advised self-quarantine only when the advice is based on a belief that the employee (1) has Covid-19; may have Covid-19, or the employee is particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 and (2) this advice prevents the employee from being able to work at the employer’s workplace or through telework.

3. Experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking medical diagnosis.

The employee must be experiencing a fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, or any other recognized Covid-19 symptom from the CDC, and must be seeking a medical diagnosis. Paid sick leave under this reason is limited to the time the employee is unable to work because of their affirmative steps to obtain the diagnosis.

4. Caring for an individual subject to a federal, state or local quarantine or isolation order or advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to COVID-19 concerns.

“Individual” is an immediate family member, person who regularly resides in the employee’s home, or a similar person with whom the employee has a relationship that creates an expectation that the employee would care for them. Employees may only take leave under this reason if, but for a need to care for the individual, the Employee would be able to perform work for their employer at the workplace or through telework.

5. Caring for the employee’s child if the child’s school or place of care is closed or the child’s care provider is unavailable due to public health emergency; or

Subject to the same EFMLA definitions, an employee may only utilize this reason if no other suitable person is available to care for the Son or Daughter during the period of such leave.

6. Experiencing any other substantially similar condition specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Labor.

At the time of this posting, it does not appear that HHS has provided other “substantially similar conditions.”

Intermittent leave and Notice

Employees may only take intermittent leave under the FFRCA’s Emergency FMLA or paid sick leave provisions when the employer agrees. However, an employer may be required to grant “intermittent” leave when an employee is actively seeking a medical diagnosis, as doctor’s visits typically require employees to leave their worksite or telework desk.

Because of the rapid development of Covid-19 symptoms and an employee’s need for leave, the Department of Labor is not requiring employees to notify employers about their need for emergency FMLA or paid sick leave as soon as practicable. Instead, the Department generally advises employers to be proactive in notifying employees of the failure to give notice and an opportunity to provide documentation prior to denying the request for leave. Notice may only be required after the first workday where the employee takes EFMLA or paid sick leave.

From a content perspective, it is reasonable for an employer to require enough information to determine whether the requested leave is covered. This documentation is generally limited to: (1) the employee’s name; (2) dates for which leave is requested; (3) qualifying reason; and (4) a statement (oral or written) that the employee is unable to work because of the qualified reason for leave. For specific reasons, such as quarantine, doctor’s orders, or care for a child, additional documentation may be required. Employers are also permitted to seek information that is needed to support tax credits pursuant to the FFCRA.

Small Business Exemption

Employers with less than 50 employees may be exempt from providing paid sick leave or emergency FMLA leave when the imposition of such requirements would “jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.” An employer is entitled to this exemption when an authorized officer has determined that:

  1. The leave requested would result in the business’s expenses and financial obligations exceeding available business revenues and cause the small business to cease operating at a minimal capacity;
  2. The absence of the employee or employees requesting leave would entail a substantial risk to the financial health or operational capabilities of the business because of their specialized skills, knowledge of the business or responsibilities; or
  3. There are not sufficient workers who are able, willing, and qualified, and who will be available at the time and place needed, to perform the labor or services by the employee or employees requesting leave and these labor or services are needed for the small business to operate at a minimal capacity.

Small businesses must document an exemption determination internally and maintain the records in its files.

Conclusion

The FFRCA has changed the way business is done in this country, albeit on a temporary basis (The FFRCA sunsets on December 31, 2020). In approaching requests for leave, the law and regulations contemplate that employers will engage in a thoughtful and well-documented manner and avoid knee-jerk reactions or blanket assertions of “business viability.” Employers of all sizes would be well-served to engage competent legal counsel to assist in navigating the FFRCA’s new requirements.

The Finney Law Firm’s labor and employment attorneys are well-versed in the rights and obligations of both employers and employees, including the rapidly evolving COVID-19 changes. For assistance with these matters, consult  Matthew S. Okiishi (513.943.6659) and Stephen E. Imm (513.943.5678).

Attorney | ‭513-943-6659 | matthew@finneylawfirm.com | + posts

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