Over the weekend, the  House of Representatives passed the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” (H.R. 6201) with implications to employers of fewer than 500 employees. The Senate is likely to pass the bill in the next week.

Paid Family Medical Leave

The bill provides 12 weeks of job-protected paid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave—of which the first 14 days may be unpaid—for employees of employers with fewer than 500 employees.

Employees may use accrued personal or sick leave during the first 14 days, but employers may not require employees to do so.

This leave benefit covers employees who have been working for at least 30 calendar days.

Among other uses, employees may use the leave to respond to quarantine requirements or recommendations, to care for family members who are responding to quarantine requirements or recommendations, and to care for a child whose school has been closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the first 14 days, employers must compensate employees in an amount that is not less than two-thirds of the employee’s regular rate of pay. These pay requirements apply to only the COVID-19-related leave reasons listed above.

The provisions will go into effect 15 days after the date of enactment and expire on December 31, 2020. The bill would provide those who qualify with two-thirds of their average monthly earnings, with a cap of $4,000, for up to 12 weeks. The benefits could be paid retroactively and would be available for those who had to leave work starting Jan. 19.

Paid Sick Leave

Employers with fewer than 500 employees will be required to provide full-time employees 2 weeks (80 hours) of paid sick leave for specific circumstances related to COVID-19 (e.g., self-isolating, doctors’ visits, etc.).

Part-time employees are entitled to the number of hours of paid sick time equal to the number of hours they work, on average, over a 2-week period.

Employers must compensate employees for any paid sick time they take at their regular rates of pay.

Employers will be required to post a notice informing employees of their rights to leave.

As currently drafted, the bill expressly provides that it does not preempt existing state or local paid sick leave entitlements.

Small businesses (defined as having 50 employees or less) would be reimbursed for providing the 14 days of additional paid sick leave.

For employers who already provide paid sick leave, the additional leave made available under the House bill should still be provided, and employers would not be allowed to make changes to their existing policies to avoid offering additional paid leave .

The provisions will go into effect 15 days after the date of enactment and expire on December 31, 2020.

Unemployment Insurance

The bill provides $1 billion in emergency unemployment insurance (UI) relief to the states: $500 million for costs associated with increased administration of each state’s UI program and $500 million held in reserve to assist states with a 10 percent increase in unemployment. Besides the necessary increase in unemployment, in order to receive a portion of this grant money, states must temporarily relax certain UI eligibility requirements, such as waiting periods and work search requirements.

To this point in time, the following has taken place to respond to the crisis:

According to guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) on March 12, 2020, states can pay benefits when:

  • An employer temporarily closes due to COVID-19 and employees can't work.
  • An employee is quarantined but expects to work when the quarantine is over.
  •  An employee leaves his or her job due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member.

Federal law doesn't require employees to quit their jobs in order to receive unemployment insurance benefits related to COVID-19. Though, the department noted, employees who are receiving paid sick leave or paid family leave are generally not considered unemployed because they are still receiving pay. So they would likely be ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits while receiving such pay. 

Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance. 

The Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA), in coordination with the US Department of Labor (USDOL) is taking a series of actions to assist workers and employers. These actions were begun in advance of the House passage of the Coronavirus Response Bill.

For current unemployment claims:

  • All requirements regarding attending seminars at the MassHire career centers have been suspended.
  • Missing deadlines due to effects of COVID-19 will be considered good cause, and lateness will be excused.
  • All appeal hearings will be held by telephone only.

The Department of Labor issued guidance to the states instructing state agencies to apply existing law flexibly. Under the DOL guidance, DUA may now pay unemployment benefits if a worker is quarantined due to an order by a civil authority or medical professional or leaves employment due to reasonable risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member and does not intend to or is not allowed to return to work. The worker need not provide medical documentation and need only be available for work when and as able.

To assist individuals who cannot work due to the impact of COVID-19, the Administration is filing emergency legislation that will allow new claims to be paid more quickly by waiving the one week waiting period for unemployment benefits.

The state is filing emergency regulations that will allow people impacted by COVID-19 to collect unemployment in the following circumstances:

  • The workplace is shut down and expects to reopen in four or fewer weeks. Workers must remain in contact with their employer and be available for any work their employer may have for them that they are able to do, but do not otherwise need to be looking for work.
  • An employer may extend the period of the shut-down to eight weeks, and the employees will remain eligible for the longer period under the same conditions described above.
  • If necessary, DUA may extend these time periods.

Employers who are impacted by COVID-19 may request up to a 60-day grace period to file quarterly reports and pay contributions.

The pending federal legislation note above proposes further relief including additional money for unemployment benefits, and relief to employers for charges related to unemployment benefits paid due to COVID-19.