COVID-19: Changes to Massachusetts Unemployment Insurance Program

By Bello Welsh LLP

In response to the COVID-19 emergency, there have been several key changes made to the eligibility and work search requirements for unemployment insurance. The following summarizes the changes applicable to impacted claimants in Massachusetts, and highlights additional changes that could be implemented as a result of the federal legislation that was just passed by the United States Senate and is currently under consideration by the House of Representatives, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”).

WAITING PERIOD AND AMOUNT OF BENEFITS

Waiver of Waiting Period

Governor Baker recently signed an act temporarily authorizing waiver of the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits for any person who has become separated from work as a result of any circumstance relating to the outbreak of COVID-19, or the effects of the governor’s March 10, 2020 declaration of a state of emergency. Accordingly, individuals who applied for unemployment on or after March 10, 2020 will receive benefits for the first week of unemployment.

Length and Amount of Benefits

Under existing Massachusetts law, eligible individuals can receive up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits in a benefit year. The current weekly benefit amount is approximately 50% of the individual’s average weekly wage, up to a maximum of $823 per week. An individual may also receive $25 per dependent child.

The CARES Act would significantly expand the length and amount of unemployment benefits, by providing for an additional $600 per week, and an additional 13 weeks of benefits. (As this legislation remains subject to change, we will update this information as further details become available.)   This means that claimants will receive whatever unemployment benefit they would receive under state law, plus $600.  This could create the anomalous result that a claimant receives more in unemployment benefits than they would have been paid in the ordinary course; the bill is, of course, subject to change, whether before it passes or in a subsequent corrections bill.

Individuals who work part time hours may still be paid unemployment benefits if the gross wages are less than the individual’s weekly benefit amount. Such individuals must report any earnings to the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) each week, and any earnings greater than 1/3 of the weekly benefit amount will be deducted from the weekly benefit payment.

CLAIMANTS IMPACTED BY COVID-19

The DUA has also filed emergency regulations, which make it easier for those impacted by COVID-19 to claim unemployment benefits. All requirements of attending seminars at the MassHire career centers have been suspended, and appeal hearings will be held by telephone only. Further, the DUA may excuse missed deadlines during the processing of a claim, if the reason for failing to meet the deadline is due to COVID-19.

Eligibility

Most individuals who are out of work due to being impacted by COVID-19 should be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. Individuals who are temporarily unemployed due to COVID-19 – whether laid off, furloughed, or if their workplace is fully or partially shut down – and expect to return to work will be considered to be in “Standby Status,” and are eligible for unemployment benefits. According to the DUA’s updated guidance for filing a new unemployment claim, being impacted by COVID-19 for purposes of unemployment eligibility may also include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Employee or someone in his/her household is quarantined (whether due to an order by a civil authority or medical professional, or a self-imposed quarantine based on a reasonable fear of illness or exposure)
  • Employee 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
  • Employee, or someone the employee is caring for, is “high risk” (older adults and/or persons with serious chronic medical conditions)
  • Lack of childcare

Individuals impacted by COVID-19 will be presumed eligible for four weeks of standby status. Individuals do not need to provide medical documentation, and employers need not even respond that the individual is on standby. However, employers may request that standby status be extended to up to eight weeks, and the DUA can further extend such standby status if necessary.

Work Search Requirements

Individuals impacted by COVID-19 will not be subject to the usual work search requirements; rather, such individuals will satisfy this requirement by taking reasonable measures to maintain contact with their employer and being available to perform any work that their employer may have for them, that they are able to do. Note, however, that work will not be considered suitable if it endangers the health of the employee or others in the employee’s household, and an employee need not accept such work.

CLAIMANTS NOT IMPACTED BY COVID-19

Individuals applying for unemployment benefits for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 are still required to conduct a weekly work search, which may include reviewing job postings online or working on a resume. However, such individuals only need to accept suitable work; accordingly, if the individual is quarantined, self-quarantining, caring for a family member who is sick, or caring for a child who is at home, the individual does not need to accept work offered until these conditions resolve.

Independent Contractors and Self-Employed Individuals

Self-employed individuals and individuals whose compensation is reported on an IRS Form 1099-MISC (“independent contractors”) are not currently eligible for unemployment benefits under Massachusetts law. However, the CARES Act would provide Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for certain self-employed individuals and independent contractors who are unemployed, partially unemployed, or unable to work due to COVID-19. We will update this information as details become available.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS for Employers DUE TO COVID-19

Distribution of Unemployment Handbook Upon Separation

The DUA has issued a new COVID-19 Unemployment Handbook, which provides detailed instructions on filing for benefits online.  Employers that communicate with employees via email may distribute this information electronically to employees upon temporary layoff or termination.  In addition, all employers are required to provide a pamphlet regarding unemployment insurance  to employees at the time of a temporary or permanent separation (which may also be done electronically).

Grace Period for Quarterly Reports and Contributions

Employers that are impacted by COVID-19 may request up to a 60-day grace period for filing quarterly wage reports and paying contributions. The DUA is currently looking at the effect of COVID-19 on employer rate charging, and rates will not change until January 2021.

WorkShare Program – An Alternative to Layoffs

To avoid layoffs, employers may apply to the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and the DUA’s WorkShare program. This program allows an employer to reduce the number of hours worked by a specific group of employees by 10%-60%, while maintaining health insurance and other benefits. The decreased wages are partially offset by unemployment benefits. Employers must submit quarterly contribution and wage detail reports and pay unemployment taxes in a timely manner, and benefits paid to employees under an approved WorkShare plan are charged the same way as regular unemployment benefits. Interested employers should visit the WorkShare website for additional information about eligibility and creation of a WorkShare plan. However, employers should carefully evaluate whether the WorkShare program will meet the employer’s needs, as the program is not particularly flexible, and once a WorkShare plan is approved, workers must work the reduced hours stated in the plan each week.

Note that certain employees may be entitled to other forms of paid leave for reasons related to COVID-19, pursuant to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed March 18, 2020 and effective April 1, 2020. For more information about eligibility for paid sick time and emergency FMLA leave, please see Bello Welsh’s detailed alert on this topic.

We will continue to monitor legal developments related to COVID-19 and provide updates as new laws applicable to employers are enacted.

COVID-19: Department of Labor Issues Guidance on Families First Coronavirus Response Act

By Bello Welsh LLP

The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has issued materials providing guidance (the “DOL Guidance”) on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”).  These materials, which include Q&A documents and fact sheets for employers and employees, can be found here.  The same page also includes links to the notices that employers must post. For a detailed summary of the paid sick leave and Emergency FMLA provisions of the FFCRA, please refer to our earlier alert, available hereRead more

COVID-19: DOL Publishes Required Poster Regarding Rights Under FFCRA

The United States Department of Labor has published the new required notice relating to paid sick leave and expanded FMLA under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).  The poster may be found here.

 

FAQs about this required notice may be found here.  Importantly now with most workplaces operating on a remote basis, an employer may satisfy this requirement by emailing or direct mailing this notice to employees, or posting this notice on an employee information internal or external website.  Employers are not required to send the notice to recently-laid off employees.

Read more

COVID-19 Challenges: Updated Q&As for Employers

By Bello Welsh LLP

On March 20, 2020, we posted a series of frequently asked questions and answers, which you may access here.  The following are additional questions that have been raised since; we will continue to update as developments warrant.

Question 18:  Our organization is covered by the FFCRA.  We have reduced a number of employees to part-time in response to the current situation, with some working only one day per week.  Will those employees still be eligible for the paid public health emergency FMLA leave and paid sick time under the FFCRA?

Answer 18:  Yes.  There is no minimum hours threshold to receive paid public health emergency FMLA (“E-FMLA”) leave or paid sick time under the FFCRA.  The amount of paid sick time granted to part-time employees is not the full 80 hours, but rather the average number of hours the employee works over a two-week period.  For E- FMLA leave, pay is pro-rated based on the number of hours the employee would otherwise be regularly scheduled to work.

If an employee does not have a regular schedule, the amount of FMLA leave pay is calculated based on the average number of daily hours over the six months preceding leave (or, for newer employees, the reasonable expectation of the employee at the time of hiring of the average number of hours that the employee would be normally scheduled to work).

Note that employees must have been employed for at least 30 days to be eligible for the public health emergency FMLA.

Question 19:  We have employees currently on furlough.  If an employee is called in to work for a few days during the furlough period, does the employee become eligible to receive paid public health emergency FMLA leave and paid sick time under the FFCRA?

Answer 19:  Most likely, yes.  Nothing in the FFCRA excludes situations like this.  However, the amount of pay would be pro-rated as described in Q&A 18.

Question 20:  We are temporarily laying off employees.  We don’t know how long the layoff will last, but we expect the employees will come back to work in the future.  Do we need to pay out employees’ accrued, unused vacation at the start of the layoff?

Answer 20:  State laws regarding the payout of accrued vacation vary, so be sure to check the law in all states where you are conducting temporary layoffs.

In Massachusetts, state law requires that “any employee discharged from . . . employment shall be paid in full on the day of his discharge.”  M.G.L. c. 149, §148.  While this language could support the position that accrued vacation need not be paid in connection with a temporary layoff, as opposed to a permanent termination, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office very recently released COVID-19-related guidance to the contrary.  The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office guidance (available here) states that “when an employee is temporarily laid off, they have a right to be paid all of their earned wages, including all accrued vacation pay, on that same day.”  The Attorney General’s Office has indicated it will not take enforcement action for untimely payment of vacation pay if an employee voluntarily agrees to save accrued vacation for later use.  However, the Attorney General’s Office notes that it does not have control of private litigation, and employees who agree to defer vacation payment now would technically still have the legal right to sue later.

Based on the Attorney General’s Office guidance, the conservative approach is to either pay employees accrued, unused vacation upon layoff or allow the individual to voluntarily defer the payout, especially since Massachusetts wage laws provide automatic triple damages and attorneys’ fees for violations.

Question 21:  Can employees use paid sick time under the FFCRA if we cannot provide them any work hours due to a government-ordered closure of non-essential businesses or a “stay-at-home” order?

Answer 21:  The answer is not clear.  Paid sick time under the FFCRA may be used if “[t]he employee is subject to a Federal, State, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19.”  The term “isolation order” could be read broadly to refer to stay-at-home orders and government-ordered business closures, or narrowly to refer to an isolation order specific to a particular individual, for example related to that individual’s actual or potential exposure to the virus.  We will monitor for guidance on this point.

Question 22:  Can our organization continue to provide medical and dental insurance to employees who are on furlough or temporary layoff?

Answer 22:  Yes, as long as you follow the requirements of your insurance plans or the provisions of COBRA, as explained below.  As a first step, you should check your insurance plans, as most contain a requirement that employees work a minimum number of weekly hours to be eligible for coverage.  Insurance plans may also limit coverage for individuals who have been laid off, even temporarily.  If your furloughed or laid off employees do not meet the technical eligibility requirements of the plans, you can request an exception from your insurer to maintain active coverage.  We understand that insurers are being flexible in granting exceptions to eligibility requirements due to the unusual circumstances caused by the pandemic.

If your insurer does not allow you to maintain regular coverage for furloughed or laid off employees, then the COBRA law provides an alternative method to continue such coverage.  COBRA notices should be issued to each affected individual, who will need to elect COBRA to continue coverage.  Employees are typically permitted to elect COBRA for up to 18 months, far longer than expected layoffs.  While individuals generally pay the full premium for COBRA coverage, employers may choose to pay some or all of the premium instead.  If you do so, be sure to clearly communicate to employees any time limits or other restrictions on the premium payments the organization is willing to provide.

Note that small employers not covered by COBRA may be subject to state laws concerning continuation of health coverage, such as the Massachusetts mini-COBRA law.

COVID-19: Impact on Massachusetts Workplaces

On March 23, 2010, Massachusetts Governor Baker issued an emergency Order Assuring Continued Operation of Essential Services in the Commonwealth, Closing Certain Workplaces, and Prohibiting Gatherings of More than 10 People.  A copy of the emergency Order may be found here:  https://www.mass.gov/doc/march-23-2020-essential-services-and-revised-gatherings-order.  A listing of essential services not subject to workplace closure may be found here:  https://www.mass.gov/doc/covid-19-essential-services/download.  A copy of the Assemblage Guidance (stay-at-home advisory) may be found here:  https://www.mass.gov/doc/march-23-assemblage-guidance/download.

If your business is not listed as an “essential service” but you think it should be listed, you may apply to have your business deemed as essential for purposes of the Emergency Order at this link:  https://www.mass.gov/forms/essential-service-designation-request.

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office has issued COVID-19 FAQs, which provides its perspective on how to navigate the impact of COVID-19 on the workplace.  A link to these FAQs, which the Attorney General’s Office has promised to update as circumstances change, may be found here:  https://www.mass.gov/doc/covid-19-fld-faqs.

The Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance has issued a new handbook for employees, that should be provided upon temporary layoff (furlough) or termination, at least until the COVID-19 crisis is over.  This is over and above the standard unemployment pamphlet that must be provided.  A copy of the new pamphlet may be found here:  https://www.mass.gov/doc/filing-a-new-unemployment-claim-covid-19/download.  The one-week waiting period before benefits may be provided is waived for the time being.  Further DUA guidance may be found here: https://www.mass.gov/info-details/massachusetts-covid-19-unemployment-information.

For small businesses in need of recovery funds, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program is accepting applications from Massachusetts businesses. Applications are available here: https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela.

We will continue to provide updates as events unfold.

COVID-19: DHS Announces Flexibility in Requirements Related to Form I-9 Verification

On Friday, DHS announced “flexibility in requirements related to Form I-9 verification.”  Under the relaxed requirements, “employers with employees taking physical proximity precautions due to COVID-19 will not be required to review the employee’s identity and employment authorization documents in the employee’s physical presence.”  Instead, the documents may be reviewed remotely, and physically review the documents within three days after normal operations resume.  Employers should also enter “COVID-19” as the reason for the physical inspection delay in the Section 2 Additional Information field, once physical inspection takes place.

These relaxed requirements only apply to employers and workplaces that are operating remotely. “If there are employees physically present at a work location, no exceptions are being implemented at this time for in-person verification of identity and employment eligibility documentation for Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification.” And, “if newly hired employees or existing employees are subject to COVID-19 quarantine or lockdown protocols, DHS will evaluate this on a case-by-case basis.”   An employer can designate anyone to complete and sign Form I-9 on their behalf.Here’s a link to the announcement: https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/dhs-announces-flexibility-requirements-related-form-i-9-compliance

COVID-19 Challenges: A Q&A For Employers

By Bello Welsh LLP

Organizations are facing unprecedented challenges as the result of COVID-19.  The virus’s impact on the workplace is significant and implicates a host of issues under employment law.  Additionally, on March 18, 2020, the federal government passed a new law, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), that imposes new obligations on employers.

Bello Welsh has published the following resources: Key Considerations for Employers Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic and Families First Coronavirus Response Act Signed into Law , which provides a summary of the relevant provisions of the FFCRA.  This document is intended to supplement those resources and answer additional questions that may arise.

Question 1:  We may be forced to furlough, temporarily lay off, or permanently terminate employees as the result of economic conditions caused by COVID-19.  Are we required to give advance notice or severance pay for terminations, or to pay employees on furlough or temporary layoff?

Answer 1:  Generally, no, with a few caveats.  First, if the action is a layoff or plant closing covered by the federal WARN Act or similar state or local law, advance notice (and in New Jersey severance) may be required. See Question 9 below.  Second, if your workforce is unionized, the applicable collective bargaining agreements may impose contractual obligations. See Question 11 below. Third, employment agreements with executives and other employees may contain notice or severance requirements, particularly in connection with permanent terminations.

Question 2:  The FFCRA gives employees new sick pay and paid leave entitlements.  Who pays for these, employers or the government?

Answer 2:  Employers must “front” the money by paying employees directly, but the amounts will be subsidized by the government in the form of a tax credit or reimbursement, specifically a credit against quarterly social security payments.  If the social security payments are not large enough to cover the credit, employers will be issued a refund.

Question 3:  The FFCRA expands the reasons why employees can take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  Do we need to worry about this if our organization is too small to be covered by the FMLA or if the employee doesn’t meet typical FMLA eligibility requirements?

Answer 3:  Yes.  The FFCRA has greatly expanded the scope of employers and employees covered by the new leave requirement.  See Families First Coronavirus Response Act Signed into Law at [hyperlink] for the details.  Note, however, that large employers with 500 or more employees are not covered by the public health emergency leave or sick pay requirements of the FFCRA.

Question 4:  Do we have to affirmatively notify employees of the new public health emergency leave and sick pay requirements of the FFCRA? 

Answer 4:  As to sick pay, yes.  The FFCRA requires employers to post notice of the requirements of the new emergency sick leave law in a conspicuous location in the workplace where notices are customarily posted.  Since many offices are closed and many employees are working from home, employers may wish to email the notice to employees and post it on the organization’s intranet, if one exists, in addition to physical posting.  The Secretary of Labor will publish a model notice that can be used, which we will distribute when it becomes available.

There is no notice requirement for the new public health emergency leave under the FMLA, but employers may wish to notify employees of this benefit.

Question 5:  We already provide paid sick time to employees under company policy and state and local laws.  Do we have to provide additional sick time under the FFCRA?

Answer 5:  Yes.  The new emergency paid sick time obligation is in addition to any paid sick time or other paid time off provided under employer policy, collective bargaining agreement, or other federal, state, or local law.

Question 6:  Are employees who are on temporary layoff or furlough eligible to receive public health emergency leave pay or sick pay, assuming they otherwise meet the eligibility requirements?

Answer 6:  This question is not answered by the FFCRA.  However, our reading of the law is that the new paid leave/sick time is not required for employees who were put on temporary layoff or furlough before requesting any emergency leave or sick time.   The new leave and pay entitlements appear intended to protect those employees who are unable to work when an employer needs them, not employees on layoff.  Nonetheless, the FFCRA contains some ambiguity, and this view could be subject to challenge.

Question 7:  We were considering a reduction-in-force to deal with economic conditions, and now we are especially concerned with the cash flow issues the new paid public health emergency leave and paid sick leave may cause for our organization.  Would it violate the law for us to have a reduction-in-force earlier to avoid potential paid leave/sick time obligations under the FFCRA?

Answer 7:  It is not clear whether the non-retaliation and related provisions in the FMLA and FFCRA would be construed to prohibit a layoff motivated by a variety of economic reasons, one of which may  be the specter of potential cash flow problems caused by new FFCRA obligations.  As such, it is risky to rely on the avoidance of FFCRA obligations as a reason for having or accelerating layoffs.  Organizations also should not select specific individuals for layoff based on the likelihood that they will utilize the new paid public health emergency leave or paid sick time as doing so could violate anti-discrimination laws in addition to the FFCRA and FMLA.

Question 8:  If we conduct a reduction-in-force for economic reasons, are we allowed to include those employees who are on public health emergency leave under the FMLA/FFCRA, or are they guaranteed reinstatement to their jobs?

Answer 8:  The answer is not clear.  Under existing FMLA regulations, if an employer can show that “an employee would not otherwise have been employed at the time reinstatement is requested” as the result of a reduction-in-force, then there is no reinstatement obligation.  See 29 C.F.R. §825.216(a).  However, the FFCRA contains an explicit exemption from reinstatement for small employers (with fewer than 25 employees) if the job no longer exists due to changed economic or other operating conditions that are caused by a public health emergency and impact employment, and certain other conditions are met.  This explicit exception for small employers could be read to mean that no such exception is available for larger employers, which would contradict existing FMLA regulations.   It is advisable to consult with legal counsel if this situation arises.

As under the existing FMLA, it is clear that an individual may not be selected for termination, in whole or part, because the individual used or requested public health emergency leave or paid sick time under the FFCRA.

Question 9:  How do I know if the federal WARN Act or similar state laws apply to our anticipated layoff or reduction-in-force?

Answer 9:  The WARN Act is a very complicated statute, and legal counsel should be consulted if there is a possibility the law may be implicated.  The WARN Act applies to employers with 100 or more employees (excluding some part-time and recently-hired employees) or who have 100 or more employees (including all part-time and recently-hired employees) who work at least 4,000 hours per week, exclusive of overtime.[1]   In general, if your organization is anticipating a temporary layoff, reduction-in-force, reduction in hours, or closing of a particular facility or operation that impacts the employment of 50 or more individuals, a more detailed WARN Act analysis is advised.

Massachusetts does not have a state analogue to the federal WARN Act.  However, various other states, including but not limited to California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, have statutes similar to the federal WARN Act, and many apply to smaller employers and personnel actions impacting smaller numbers of employees.

Question 10:  Does the WARN Act allow any flexibility in situations like this, where economic conditions are changing rapidly and unpredictably?

Answer 10:  Yes.  The federal WARN Act contemplates situations where the need for layoff was unforeseeable and it is hard to predict how long layoffs or reductions in hours may last.  Even in such situations, however, WARN imposes very specific obligations on employers, and there are significant consequences for non-compliance.   If it is possible that the WARN Act may apply to your employment action, legal counsel can help guide you through the WARN Act’s requirements and assist you in taking advantage of any flexibility available under the law.  Note that state law requirements may differ from those in the federal WARN Act.

Question 11: Part of my organization’s workforce is unionized.  Do we have special obligations with respect to any anticipated layoffs, closures, or reductions in hours?

Answer 11:   Yes.  You must review your collective bargaining agreement for specific provisions regarding seniority, layoff, recall, notice provisions and possibly other matters.  Unions are sending out letters to employers reflecting that they expect employers to follow these provisions regardless of the crisis.  There may also be an obligation to bargain about the impacts of layoffs.  Experienced labor counsel can assist with reviewing relevant collective bargaining agreements and obligations before taking action.

Question 12:  We are worried that some of our employees, specifically older individuals and those who have shared they have certain underlying health conditions, may be especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and we would like to help prevent them from being exposed.  Can we offer these employees the opportunity to work from home without allowing other employees in similar positions to do so?

Answer 12:  The best practice in this circumstance is to invite employees with particular concern about COVID-19 due to risk factors to raise the issue and to deal with concerns raised by employees on a case-by-case basis.  However, if you wish to affirmatively reach out to employees in high-risk categories, be sure not to compromise the privacy of an employee’s medical information or make assumptions about an employee’s medical status beyond what the employee has disclosed to you.  There is always the possibility, though, that the employees you affirmatively reach out to and/or those who may be in high-risk categories that you do not allow to work from home might contend that your actions were based on improper consideration of protected characteristics, such as age, disability or pregnancy.

For those employees who are required to work on-site, employers should take the steps recommended by federal, state, and local public health authorities to reduce transmission of COVID-19.

Question 13:  Our organization generally does not allow certain employees to work from home, even as an accommodation of a disability, because we have determined that being in the office/worksite is an essential function of certain jobs.  If we allow employees to work from home as the result of the public health emergency, are we compromising our ability to argue later that being at work is essential?

Answer 13:  Do not let the impact on future disability accommodations drive your decisions about allowing work from home during the public health crisis.  However, if you are concerned about future impact, be clear in all communications to employees that working from home is being allowed due to the extraordinary public health emergency even though many important aspects of people’s jobs cannot be performed remotely.

Question 14:  Can we check the temperatures of all employees before allowing them to come in to work? 

Answer 14: Yes.  Now that COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic, guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) allows temperature checks for all employees.  However, there are numerous practical considerations that should be resolved before undertaking this measure, including whether there is an employee who is trained to do the checks, has reliable equipment and can be safe in doing so; whether employee privacy can be protected in the case of a positive result; and whether a contingency plan exists to deal with excluded employees.  It is also possible that state laws may diverge from the EEOC guidance, though that seems unlikely under the circumstances.

Question 15:  Can I and should I tell other employees if we learn that someone with COVID-19 symptoms or a positive test was present at work, and should I exclude those other employees from the workplace for 14 days?

Answer 15:  Many employers are choosing to notify “Tier 1” (direct) contacts of an employee who has tested positive for COVID-19 or was in close contact with someone who tested positive, and we believe that approach is permissible and potentially could be viewed as required under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) in some circumstances.  Given the current lack of availability of testing, making such notifications where the employee has symptoms but has not had a test may also be prudent.  However, going further to second-level contacts (those in contact with Tier 1 employees) may not make sense absent additional information indicating risk of exposure.  In making the notifications, employers should be careful to protect the privacy of the affected employee to the extent practical and must avoid seeking disability-related information from employees being notified.  Temporary exclusion of employees who have tested positive or who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection is both permissible and prudent.  Employers should always follow the guidance of federal, state, and local public health authorities with respect to notifications.

Question 16:  Can I require all employees returning from travel or other leave to fill out a questionnaire confirming that they are not a risk to the workforce?

Answer 16:  Maybe, depending on the questions asked.  Generalized questions that do not elicit disability-related or other confidential information are permissible.  These could include asking the employee to confirm such things as that s/he is free of fever or other known COVID-19 symptoms, has not been in contact with a positive or presumed positive individual, and is not under an order or recommendation of quarantine.

Question 17:  If an employee develops COVID-19, am I required to record the illness or report it to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)?

Answer 17:  Maybe.  Generally, an illness is recordable if the illness is contracted as a result of the employee performing their work-related duties, and if it requires medical treatment beyond first aid or days away from work.  Although common colds and the flu are excluded from the obligation to record work-related illness, COVID-19 is not excluded.  Accordingly, a confirmed case of COVID-19 is a recordable illness if a worker is infected as a result of performing their work-related duties, provided it requires medical treatment or days away from work (which is likely, unless the employee is asymptomatic and already working remotely).  Moreover, if an employee who contracts COVID-19 at work later requires in-patient hospitalization, you must report the in-patient hospitalization to OSHA.

Of course, it may be difficult or impossible to know whether an employee’s infection actually resulted from their performance of work-related duties.  That said, best practice would be to assume that if an employee develops COVID-19 after having had known contact with another employee who has a confirmed case of COVID-19, the incident should be recorded or reported, as applicable.

[1] The WARN Act does not identify a single point in time at which employer size is to be measured in all circumstances.  If your organization is near the threshold size or has exceeded it in the recent past, it is advisable to do a deeper dive on whether the law may apply.

COVID-19: Key Considerations for Employers Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

By Bello Welsh LLP

Businesses of all sizes are having to make significant changes in many areas of their operations and to respond to unprecedented issues stemming from the continuing spread of COVID-19.  The following are key business and legal consideration for all employers dealing with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the workplace.  Read more

COVID-19: Families First Coronavirus Response Act Signed Into Law

By Bello Welsh LLP

On March 18, 2020, President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (the “Act”), which aims to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by, among other things, providing a limited period of paid sick leave for employees affected by COVID-19 and expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) for a public health emergency.  The paid sick leave and Emergency FMLA provisions of this new law apply to employers with fewer than 500 employees.  For employers with more than 500 employees, the new law does not impact or change existing legal obligations under the FMLA or other federal employment laws, which remain as is.

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