The coronavirus has been novel in more ways than one. On one end of the spectrum, employers confront new questions of almost philosophical dimensions.
How much risk is too much risk? What risks should we ask our employees to accept? Where is the line between ordinary risk — the kind that employees undertake when they walk out the door every day to go to work — and the extraordinary risks posed by a pandemic from which, in the end, employers cannot entirely shield their workforces?
A seemingly more mundane novelty is the plethora of new COVID-19 laws and regulations. Compliance should just be a matter of reading a statute and, well, complying. But even there, an evolving real-world pandemic potentially makes compliance just as complicated.
One example we have helped our clients wrestle with involves exactly this kind of straightforward-on-paper, tricky-in-practice complexity.
One requirement of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act appears to be simple: When an employee working for an employer with under 500 employees gets sick with COVID-19, is seeking a COVID-19 diagnosis, or is subject to a quarantine order of a doctor or a government, they are entitled to up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave.
And that made perfect sense when the law was hurriedly drafted: You get sick once, and you do not get sick again, right?
Wrong. Mounting evidence now shows that contracting COVID-19 does not confer absolute immunity and that many individuals have now contracted the novel coronavirus more than once. So what happens when an employee exhausts his or her 80-hour emergency paid sick leave entitlement, recovers from COVID-19, and then contracts it again?
What are the basic requirements of the FFCRA?
Under the FFCRA, full-time and part-time employees who are unable to work or telework due to one of the qualifying reasons below may take up to 80 hours of paid sick leave.
- The employee is subject to a federal, state or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID–19.
- The employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID–19.
- The employee is experiencing symptoms of COVID–19 and seeking a medical diagnosis.
- The employee is caring for an individual who is subject to the first or second reason above.
- The employee is caring for his or her child if the school or place of care of the child has been closed, or the child care provider of such child is unavailable, due to COVID–19 precautions.
- The employee is experiencing any other substantially similar condition specified by the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in consultation with the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor.
An employee who contracts COVID-19 may be eligible to take 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave for one or more of the above-qualifying reasons. However, they may only take 80 hours of paid sick leave once.
That is, the language of the FFCRA is arguably quite clear that two weeks of emergency paid sick leave is all an employee is entitled to within one Family and Medical Leave Act period, i.e., 12 months, whether a calendar year, another fixed 12-month leave year, etc.
The new legislation, effective April 1 to Dec. 31, was quickly drafted in March when the coronavirus was still novel. But while there is still so much that is unknown about COVID-19, we can no longer assume that an individual who has been infected with COVID-19 and recovers, will not be able to get the virus again.
In the U.S., people are reporting testing positive for the virus after having recovered from an initial infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
When a positive test occurs less than about 6 weeks after the person met criteria for discontinuation of isolation, it can be difficult to determine if the positive test represents a new infection or a persistently positive test associated with the previous infection. If the positive test occurs more than 6-8 weeks after the person has completed their most recent isolation, clinicians and public health authorities should consider the possibility of reinfection.
And, of course, persons who are determined to be potentially infectious should undergo evaluation and remain isolated.
In April, the DOL issued guidance which also confirms the plain language of the FFCRA’s FMLA Expansion Act. That is, employees are not entitled to any more than 12 weeks of FMLA leave in a 12-month period, regardless of whether an employee takes paid leave under the FMLA Expansion Act or regular unpaid FMLA leave for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.
The FMLA Expansion Act does not add additional job-protected leave time. Rather, it adds additional qualifying reasons to take leave. Thus, an employee who takes 12 weeks of FMLA leave, does not have an additional 12 weeks of leave under the act because he or she is, for example, experiencing symptoms of COVID–19 for a second time and seeking another medical diagnosis.
Moreover, employees who may have taken FMLA leave for reasons other than the public health emergency in the preceding leave year may have reduced leave time under the FMLA for purposes of the public health emergency. This may have the unfortunate effect of potentially leaving those who are most vulnerable with less leave time than employees who have not needed to use regular unpaid FMLA leave for their own serious health condition. Also, the FFCRA only applies to employers with 500 or fewer employees.
New York employers are required to comply with both the FFCRA and the New York Emergency Paid Sick Leave Law, or EPSL. The benefits available under the EPSL vary based on the size and net income of the employer.
Under the EPSL, private employers with 100 or more employees are required to provide their employees with at least 14 days of paid sick leave. Employees in New York are eligible for benefits under the EPSL when the benefits provided by that law are in excess of those provided under the FFCRA.
In this situation, employees would be entitled to federal benefits, plus the difference in benefits provided under the FFCRA and the EPSL. In other words, no double dipping. And, unless the employee has to care for a family member with a serious health condition, he or she would not be entitled to New York paid family leave.
Given all this, there is no statutory obligation under the FFCRA to provide employees with additional paid leave in the unfortunate circumstance that an employee contracts the virus twice. However, this may not always be the answer under state law.
For example, the New York State Department of Health and New York State Department of Labor recently issued guidance providing that health care employees who test positive after a quarantine or isolation may receive paid sick leave for up to two additional periods of quarantine or isolation.
Employers could certainly opt to pay employees during a second quarantine, but they are not required to under the current federal law. Alternatively, employers could provide unpaid time off, if the employee has exhausted his or her paid time off.
An employer may also be obligated to consider leave as a reasonable accommodation for individuals whose disabilities put them at greater risk from COVID-19, unless such an accommodation would cause an undue hardship on the employer.
So that ends the inquiry, right? Again: wrong.
What’s an employer to do?
We are always wary of simple answers to tricky questions. One answer to the questions posed above is deceptively simple: If an employee has exhausted her 80 hours of FFCRA leave, it is exhausted, and she is not entitled to a second round of leave.
While that position is straightforward and legally defensible, it misses a bigger context. If an employee is not entitled to additional leave but has contracted COVID-19 twice (or more), a sensible employer, or at least, one that is interested in avoiding getting sued by other employees, will not allow the sick employee to return to work. But if an employer takes the position that an employee ordered to stay home is not entitled to pay, it opens up a whole other can of worms.
One policy arguably underlying the pay protection provisions of the FFCRA is to encourage candor: Employees will be less likely to ignore or minimize their own symptoms, and to tell their employers about what is going on, if they are not concerned about losing compensation as a reward for their honesty.
And with federal unemployment benefits of $600 per week in addition to the normal level of benefits still in place, an employee may well consider continuing to stay home or eventually finding another job.
These concerns underscore why many larger employers who are not subject to the FFCRA’s coverage because of their size have gratuitously offered pay protection to sick employees: You want to know that employees are sick, tell them to stay home to avoid community spread in the workplace, and — perhaps most importantly to your longer-term business goals — actually retain a workforce you hope can return soon enough in full force.
Obviously, employers must first and foremost ensure compliance with applicable law, including the FFCRA. But navigating the pandemic is not just a question of strict compliance. Arguably, protecting continuity of operations, the health of the workforce and an employer’s long-term investment in its workforce is at least as important as ensuring any shorter-term compliance.
While this article cannot address how a specific employer will weigh those potentially competing concerns, smart employers consider all of those impacts in deciding whether or not to maintain a leave policy that may exceed, not just meet, the requirements of the FFCRA.
Regardless of whether the U.S. is in the first or second wave, the possibility is now evident that employees may get the coronavirus for a second time, while having already exhausted the leave entitlements under the FFCRA, state leave laws and the employer’s PTO policy. Employers should be prepared to face this new obstacle, particularly as cases in the U.S. are not abating.