EEOC Publishes Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017-2021

By Martha J. Zackin

EEOC recently published its Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for Fiscal Years 2017-2021, in which it outlines the areas in which it intends to focus its strategic litigation and enforcement activities in the coming years.  Not surprisingly, the EEOC indicates that it intends to expend significant resources on understanding and protecting temporary employees and members of the gig workforce.

As described in the SEP, EEOC’s substantive priorities for Fiscal Years 2017-2021 are: Read more

EEOC Issues Resource Document on Leave of Absences under the ADA

On May 9, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a new Resource Document that advocates the use employer-provided leaves of absence as accommodation for an employee’s disability.  According to the press release announcing the publication of the document, titled Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act, this new resource attempts to address the “troubling trend” that is the “prevalence of employer policies that deny or unlawfully restrict the use of leave as a reasonable accommodation.” Claiming that the Resource Document creates no new agency policy, the EEOC describes the document as simply “one in a series of EEOC Resource Documents” that “consolidates existing guidance on ADA and leave into one place.”

The Resource Document covers six main topics, giving specific examples for each. These topics, and one example provided for each, are:

  1. Equal Access to Leave Under an Employer’s Leave Policy. Here, the EEOC simply asserts that “employees with disabilities must be provided with access to leave on the same basis as all other similarly-situated employees.” Given that this has been the law of the land for many years, it is likely that the EEOC included this statement in its Resource Document to demonstrate that it is not creating new agency policy, but simply consolidating existing guidance into one place.

Example: An employer permits employees to use paid annual leave for any purpose and does not require that they explain how they intend to use it. An employee with a disability requests one day of annual leave and mentions to her supervisor that she is using it to have repairs made to her wheelchair. Even though he has never denied other employees annual leave based on their reason for using it, the supervisor responds, “That’s what sick leave is for,” and requires her to designate the time off as sick leave. This violates the ADA, since the employer has denied the employee’s use of annual leave due to her disability.

  1. Granting Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation. The EEOC describes its policy as requiring employers “to change the way things are customarily done” (emphasis in the original). To that end, an employer must consider providing unpaid leave to an employee with a disability as a reasonable accommodation, when the employer does not offer leave as an employee benefit, when the employee is not eligible for leave under the employer’s policy, or when the employee has exhausted his or her available leave. The practical effect of this principle is to extend FMLA leave, or to provide FMLA leave to employees who are not eligible for such leave.

Example: An employer’s leave policy does not cover employees until they have worked for six months. An employee who has worked for only three months requires four weeks of leave for treatment for a disability. Although the employee is ineligible for leave under the employer’s leave policy, the employer must provide unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation unless it can show that providing the unpaid leave would cause undue hardship.

  1. Leave and the Interactive Process Generally. According to the Resource Document, “[w]hen an employee requests leave, or additional leave, for a medical condition, the employer must treat the request as one for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA” (emphasis added). If the request for leave cannot be addressed under an employer’s existing leave program, the FMLA or similar state or local law, or the state workers’ compensation program, the employer must engage in the “interactive process,” to obtain relevant information to determine whether the employee has a condition that is a disability under the ADA, and to determine the feasibility of providing the leave as a reasonable accommodation.

ExampleAn employee with a disability is granted three months of leave by an employer. Near the end of the three month leave, the employee requests an additional 30 days of leave. In this situation, the employer can request information from the employee or the employee’s health care provider about the need for the 30 additional days and the likelihood that the employee will be able to return to work, with or without reasonable accommodation, if the extension is granted.

  1. Maximum Leave Policies. Many employers have maximum leave policies that provide for automatic or administrative termination for all employees who exceed the maximum amount of leave. The Resource Document makes clear that although such policies are not per se unlawful, employers must consider modifying maximum leave policies to grant leave beyond the maximum allowed as a reasonable accommodation for disability-related absences. In other words, employers must make a case-by-case assessment of an employee’s situation and need for leave before terminating the employee in accordance with a maximum leave policy.

Example: An employer is not covered by the FMLA, and its leave policy specifies that an employee is entitled to only four days of unscheduled leave per year. An employee with a disability informs her employer that her disability may cause periodic unplanned absences and that those absences might exceed four days a year. The employee has requested a reasonable accommodation, and the employer should engage with the employee in an interactive process to determine if her disability requires intermittent absences, the likely frequency of the unplanned absences, and if granting an exception to the unplanned absence policy would cause undue hardship.

  1. Return to Work and Reasonable Accommodation (Including Reassignment). The EEOC unequivocally states that an employer “will violate the ADA if it requires an employee with a disability to have no medical restrictions” before returning to work. In other words, a “100% healed or recovered” policy is unlawful if the employee can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. The EEOC also takes the position that if an employee cannot perform the essential functions of his or her job even with a reasonable accommodation, the employer must place the employee in a vacant position for which he or she is qualified without requiring the employee to compete with other applicants for the position.

Example: An employee with a disability requests and is granted two months of medical leave for her disability. Three days after returning to work she requests as reasonable accommodations for her disability an ergonomic chair, adjusted lighting in her office, and a part-time schedule for eight days. In response, the company requires the employee to continue on leave and informs her that she cannot return to work until she is able to work full-time with no restrictions or accommodations. The employer may not prohibit the employee from returning to work solely because she needs reasonable accommodations (though the employer may deny the requested accommodations if they cause an undue hardship). If the employee requires reasonable accommodations to enable her to perform the essential functions of her job and the accommodations requested (or effective alternatives) do not cause an undue hardship, the employer’s requirement violates the ADA.

  1. Undue Hardship. The EEOC reiterates that employers are not required to provide reasonable accommodation if to do so would cause “undue hardship.” Importantly, the EEOC clearly states that “indefinite leave – meaning that an employee cannot say whether or when she will be able to return to work at all – will constitute an undue hardship.” Otherwise, however, the EEOC offers no further clarity to what constitutes “undue hardship” beyond what has already been provided in previous guidance. As always, factors to be considered include the amount and/or length of leave required, the frequency of leave, the predictability of intermittent leave, and the impact on the employer’s operations and its ability to serve customers and clients in a timely manner.

Example: An employee has exhausted both his FMLA leave and the additional eight weeks of leave available under the employer’s leave program, but requires another four weeks of leave due to his disability. In determining whether an undue hardship exists, the employer may consider the impact of the 20 weeks of leave already granted and the additional impact on the employer’s operations in granting four more weeks of leave.

The concept of leave as a reasonable accommodation is not new. For many years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that a leave of absence is a form of reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities act if necessitated by an employee’s disability, including leave that exceeds a company’s normal leave allowance. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the EEOC claims that the document creates no new agency policy, employers are on notice that the EEOC will scrutinize all refusals to grant an employee a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation. Beware.

Final Regulations for Massachusetts Earned Sick Time Law

By Emma L. Melton and Alexandra D. Thaler

Last November, voters approved a ballot initiative granting earned sick leave to Massachusetts employees. As we wrote in an earlier article, beginning on July 1, 2015, employees working in Massachusetts are entitled to earn up to forty hours of paid sick leave per calendar year. Employers with ten or fewer employees are not required to pay employees during this leave but must provide unpaid leave to their employees.

On April 27, 2015, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office released long-awaited proposed regulations, which we described here. After receiving many comments, both written and in the course of the six public hearings conducted across the Commonwealth, on June 19 the AGO issued final regulations implementing the Massachusetts Earned Sick Time law. Below we update our earlier advisory by summarizing the important changes from the draft regulations. Read more

Updated FMLA Forms Are Now Available

By Alexandra D. Thaler

The DOL has (finally) updated its FMLA forms, and made them available on its website, here (see “Forms” section toward the bottom of the page).

In addition to revising the expiration date to May 31, 2018, the forms also now include references to the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).  Most significantly, the Certification of Health Care Provider forms now instruct providers not to disclose information about genetic testing, genetic services, or “the manifestation of disease or disorder in the employee’s family members,” as those terms are defined by regulation. Read more

New Earned Sick Time Notice and Updated Safe Harbor Regulation

By Alexandra D. Thaler

With just weeks to go before the Massachusetts Earned Sick Time law goes into effect on July 1, 2015, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office is continuing to issue guidance and documentation relevant to the law, including the required notice posting and an update to its safe harbor regulation.

The AGO’s current draft regulations provide that this Notice of Employee Rights (and not an employer-drafted alternative), must be both posted in a conspicuous location at Massachusetts worksites and distributed to employees.  The English language version of the required poster is now available here.  The AGO’s notice contains the basic outlines of the law’s requirements, including, among other things, minimal required rates of accrual and carry-over, permissible reasons for use, employee notice obligations, and contact information for the AGO (as required by the authorizing legislation).  It also reminds employees that sick time cannot be used as an excuse to be late for work, and that misuse of sick leave may result in discipline. Read more

Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office Issues Proposed Earned Sick Time Regulations

Last November, voters approved a ballot initiative granting earned sick leave to Massachusetts employees.   As we wrote in an earlier article, beginning on July 1, 2015, employees working in Massachusetts are entitled to earn up to forty hours of paid sick leave per calendar year.  Employers with ten or fewer employees are not required to pay employees during this leave but must provide unpaid leave to their employees.

Many questions were left unanswered by the text of the statute.  On April 27, 2015, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office released long-awaited proposed regulations.   Although the proposed regulations offer some guidance to employers, questions remain that we hope will be addressed in the final regulations that will be implemented in June shortly before the law goes into effect.  A summary of the guidance offered and the challenges that remain is provided below.

In the meantime, the AG’s Office is seeking public comment regarding the proposed regulations.  Six public hearings are scheduled to take place across the Commonwealth during May and June.  Written comments must be received by 5:00 p.m. on June 10.  Dates and times of the public hearings, and a description of the process by which the AGO will accept written comments, may be found here.  We plan on submitting written comments and welcome your input in presenting any questions you may have.

Guidance:

Employer size.  The new law provides that employers with eleven or more employees must provide up to 40 hours per year of paid sick leave.  For the purpose of determining employer size, employers must include all of their employees, including full time, part-time, seasonal and temporary employees, and interns.  Although sick time benefits need only be provided to individuals working “primarily” in Massachusetts, all employees are counted in determining whether an employer has eleven employees for purposes of the law, whether those employees work within the Commonwealth or outside of Massachusetts.

Eligibility. An employee is eligible to accrue and use earned sick time if his or her “primary place of work” is in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  According to the proposed regulations, if an employee works more hours in Massachusetts than in any other state (where, for example, an employee works 40% of his or her hours in Massachusetts, 30% in New Hampshire, and 30% in Maine), then Massachusetts is the employee’s “primary place of work” and all hours work count for accrual purposes.  Employees with a break in service of less than one year return to work with full credit for prior service and prior unused accruals.

Accrual and breaks in service. Nonexempt employees accrue earned sick time at a minimum rate of one hour of earned sick time for every 30 hours of work, including overtime hours. Exempt employees will be assumed to work 40 hours per week, provided that their job description or other terms and conditions of employment do not specify a lower number of hours per week.  In such a case, earned sick time accrues based on that specified number of hours per week.  In addition, employees who are rehired after a break in service of up to one year keep all previously accrued earned sick time, and their employment is deemed to have commenced as of the start of employment prior to the break in service.

Calendar Year.  Employees are eligible to earn up to 40 hours of earned sick time per “calendar year.”  The term “calendar year” is defined in the proposed regulations as “any consecutive 12-month period of time as determined by an employer.”  By way of example, the proposed regulations explain that employers may choose a year that runs from January 1 through December 31, a tax year, the employer’s fiscal year, or the year running from an employee’s anniversary date of employment.  Employers must apply the choice of “calendar year” uniformly, and must inform employees by written notice at the time of hire what constitutes a “calendar year.”

Increments.  Employers must allow employees to use earned sick time in increments of one hour or the smallest increment the employer’s payroll system uses to account for absences or use of other time.  If the employee’s absence at a specific time requires the employer to hire or assign a replacement worker, however, and if the employer does so, the employer may require the employee to use up to a full shift of earned sick time.

Rate and time of payment.  When used, earned paid sick time must be paid on the same schedule as when regular wages are paid.  Employers cannot delay payment pending receipt of written verification or documentation of the use of earned sick time.   Employees are paid at a rate equal to his or her hourly base rate wage, which rate does not include commissions, overtime, or other premium rates.    The proposed regulations provide guidance on how to calculate payment for employees who are paid on commission or who receive different pay rates depending on the tasks performed or hours worked.  In no event may an employer pay an employee a rate less than the effective minimum wage.

Carryover.  Employers must allow employees to carryover up to 40 hours of accrued but unused earned sick time from one calendar year into the next, unless the employer provides a lump sum of 40 hours of earned sick time at the start of employment and at the start of each subsequent calendar year.  Even if hours are carried over, employers are not required to allow employees to take more than 40 hours of earned sick time per calendar year.

Documentation.  The regulations seem to prohibit an employer from requiring medical verification until and unless an individual has been absent for 24 consecutive business hours.  Employees who do not have a healthcare provider may be required to provide a signed written statement that the hours were used for an authorized purpose.   Employees who take earned sick leave for fewer than 24 consecutive business hours may be asked to submit written verification that they have used earned sick time for an allowable purpose.  In no case may an employer ask employees to explain the nature of the illness or the details of the domestic violence that underlies the need to take the earned leave.  The AG’s Office will be releasing a model form that employers may use; we will provide a copy when it becomes available.

Notification.  Employers may require up to seven days’ advance written notice of foreseeable leave, provided a written policy is in place that so requires.  Employers may require employees to follow existing call-out requirements, including the requirement that an employee provide notification each day he or she is absent.  If the need for leave is unforeseeable, the employee must notify the employer of the need for leave “as soon as practicable,” and must comply with the employer’s normal policies and call-out procedures with respect to notifications of unforeseeable absences, “provided that such requirements do not interfere with the purposes for which the earned sick time is needed.”  The proposed regulations also contemplate situations where notification is not feasible, such as accidents and sudden illness, and suggest that failure to provide notification in such circumstances must be excused.

Notice and Record Keeping Provisions.  Employers must provide employees with written notice as to what constitutes a “calendar year” for accrual purposes.  Employers must provide employees with a copy of notice to be prepared by the Attorney General’s Office summarizing the law and regulations,  and must also post a notice of the law and regulations in a conspicuous location accessible to employees in every establishment where employees who are entitled to earned sick time work. Employers are expected to maintain records of accrual and use of sick time for a period of three years and provide a copy of the records upon demand by the AG.

Allowable substitution of paid time off.   An employer may choose to frontload 40 hours of sick leave at the start of employment and at the beginning of every subsequent “calendar year” rather than tracking accrual rates throughout the year.  Moreover, employers may substitute paid time off for earned sick leave if the PTO policies provide that time off:

    • accrues at a rate of no less than one hour of PTO for every 30 hours of work;
    • is paid at an employee’s same hourly rate, as defined by the regulations;
    • is accessible on the same basis, meaning that time may be taken for the authorized uses under the statute;
    • comes with the same notice requirements to employees; and
    • affords employees with the same job protections as provided under the statute.

Discipline.  Employers may discipline employees who are committing fraud or abuse by engaging in an activity that is inconsistent with allowable purposes for leave or by exhibiting a clear pattern of taking leave on days when the employee is scheduled to perform duties perceived as undesirable.   The proposed regulations clearly state that employers may consider an employee’s use of earned sick leave when offering an attendance bonus or reward, and that an employee’s failure to qualify for such a bonus or reward does not constitute interference with the employee’s rights under the law.

Payout at end of year or upon termination.  Employers are not required to pay employees accrued but unused earned sick leave at the end of the year or upon termination.  The proposed regulations provide, however, that an employer who chooses to pay employees for unused earned sick leave at the end of a calendar year may do so, provided the employer makes available at least sixteen hours of paid sick time as of the start of the next calendar year.

Transition year.  For 2015, paid leave provided prior to July 1 will be credited toward the paid leave required beginning on July 1 provided such leave was made available under terms consistent with the law and regulations.

Challenges:

Interaction with other leave policies.  The proposed regulations state that earned sick leave is in addition to time off provided by the FMLA, the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act, the Massachusetts Domestic Violence Leave Act, the Small Necessities Leave Act, “and the like,” which suggests that earned sick leave may not be used concurrently with any of these other types of leave.  In other words, the proposed regulations suggest that an employee who qualifies for FMLA leave and earned sick leave, for example, would be entitled up to a total of thirteen weeks of job-protected leave (or twenty-seven weeks, if the need for the leave qualified the employee for military-related family leave).  This interpretation presents a marked difference in the way in which Massachusetts has implemented leave laws, and we are hoping that the Attorney General’s Office will provide further clarity on this important issue.

Notification.  Practical issues abound under the proposed regulations guidance regarding employee notification.  If employers cannot require an employee to provide medical verification before he or she is absent for 24 consecutive scheduled business hours, it will be a struggle to enforce existing attendance policies and to prevent fraud.  Moreover, the proposed regulations leave many questions unanswered, including whether the prohibition against requesting medical verification applies generally or only when employees seek to use earned sick leave.  We plan on alerting the Attorney General to these and other problems attendant to the proposed regulations, and hope that the Attorney General’s Office will offer further clarification and practical guidance.

Discipline.  Although the proposed regulations allow employers to discipline employees who engage in an activity that is not consistent with allowable purposes for leave or who engage in a “clear pattern” of taking leave when the employee is scheduled to perform duties perceived as undesirable, the proposed regulations do not provide any guidance as to what would constitute a “clear pattern.”  It unclear, therefore, whether employers may discipline employees who exhibit clear patterns of arriving late on Mondays or leaving early on Fridays without facing a claim of retaliation or interference under the law.

Penalties.  The Attorney General may bring an enforcement action against employers, their officers, agents, superintendents, foremen, or employees thereof, or staffing agencies or work site employers, all of whom may face both criminal and civil penalties for violation of the law.  Penalties vary based upon whether the violation is willful or not willful, with even first-time willful violations punishable by $25,000, up to one year of imprisonment, or by both.  Repeat willful violations are punishable by a fine of not more than $50,000, by imprisonment or up to two years, or by both.  Non-willful violations are punishable by a fine of not more than $10,000 or by imprisonment for not more than six months for first offenses.  Subsequent non-willful violations are punishable by a fine of not more than $25,000, by imprisonment for not more than one year, or by both.  As has been the case with the Wage Act, we do not believe it likely that the Attorney General will bring criminal proceedings absent egregious and repeated violations.  That said, the threat is real and raises the stakes substantially.

Of greater concern is that the statute creates a private right of action for employees to sue over alleged violations of earned sick time law, with damages identical to those under the Massachusetts Wage Act.  Specifically, prevailing plaintiffs are entitled to mandatory treble damages for any lost wages and other benefits, as well as the costs of the litigation and reasonable attorneys’ fees.  Although the amount of damages available for lost earned sick time are not likely to be substantial, to the extent an employee (or group of employees) bring claims for interference with rights under the law or retaliation of exercising those rights (for example, following termination of an employee who has recently taken sick time), there may be substantial economic exposure.

Recommendations:

Employers should prepare for the July 1 effective date of the Earned Sick Time law by:

  • Review existing leave policies to determine if such policies will comply with the Massachusetts law and the proposed regulations.
  • Work with legal counsel to modify existing policies.
  • Contact their outside payroll providers to ensure that they have the ability to track and record the use of earned sick time.
  • Consider providing suggestions (either directly or through counsel) to the Attorney General’s Office by written comment or by voicing their concerns at the upcoming public hearings.
  • Check back here for updates.

Massachusetts Extends Parental Leave Rights to Employees Regardless of Gender

By Sasha Thaler

Since 1972, the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (M.G.L. c. 149 s. 105D) has provided eight weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to full-time female employees who meet certain eligibility requirements, on the occasion of the birth and, more recently, the adoption of a child.  One of former Governor Deval Patrick’s last official acts was to sign into law a revision of the MMLA that extends those rights and job protections to men, beginning on April 7, 2015.

The new Parental Leave Law retains many of the key provisions of the MMLA familiar to most Massachusetts employers: Read more

Top Employment Law Changes for Massachusetts Businesses- End of Year Review

By Sasha Thaler

2014 brought a number of legislative changes which will affect Massachusetts employers of all sizes in 2015.  Here is a recap of the top 5 changes employers should be prepared for in the New Year. Read more

Mandatory Paid Sick Time- Massachusetts Voters Say “Yes”

By Jennifer Belli

On election day, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot initiative requiring employers to provide sick time to their employees.  Absent legislative repeal, the mandatory sick time law will become effective on July 1, 2015.  Organizations with eleven or more employees will be required to provide paid sick time, while organizations with fewer than eleven employees must provide unpaid sick time.  Employers should review their sick time or PTO policies in the coming months to ensure compliance by the July 1, 2015 deadline.  Employers who meet the specific requirements of the new law (including those described below) in a PTO, vacation or other paid leave policy do not need to provide a separate sick time entitlement.

Read more

Domestic Violence under Massachusetts Law: Massachusetts Establishes New Category of Job Protected Leave

By Leigh C. Tinmouth

On August 8, 2014, Governor Deval Patrick signed into law a bill relating to domestic violence that, among other things, establishes a new category of job-protected leave for employees (the “Law”).  Effective immediately, Massachusetts employers with fifty (50) or more employees must permit employees to take up to fifteen (15) days of unpaid leave per year if they or their family members are the victims of “abusive behavior,” which includes domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault, and kidnapping.   Read more