What the Coronavirus Means for My Job

March 20, 2020

There are more than two million Florida workers who are in low-wage service jobs that probably don’t offer paid sick time. And many low-wage employers can’t or won’t pay their workers who are sick because of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

But with sick workers being urged to stay home, there looks like there is some help on the way, especially from the federal government.

Florida State of Emergency Because of the Coronavirus

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order Number 20-52 on March 9th, in which he declared a state of emergency due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

The state of emergency provides broad powers to Florida state and local government agencies in responding to COVID-19. The state of emergency will expire on April 8, 2020, unless it is extended.

And President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13th. This frees up billions of dollars to fund public health and removes restrictions on hospitals to treat more patients.

Let’s look at the laws that are in effect and those recently enacted to help Florida workers address the effects of the coronavirus.

Laws Now on the Books to Help Employees

There are several current laws that can help workers in this time of crisis:

Family and Medical Leave Act. The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, was enacted in 1993. Because of this law, eligible employees are afforded up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year if they decide to stay home in the wake of their child’s birth or adoption, or serious personal or family member illness. To be eligible for FMLA benefits, a person must have been with the company for at least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 hours during the past year. The law only applies to businesses that employ at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. Coronavirus would qualify as a “serious health condition” under FMLA, so in addition to the leave, the worker would be entitled to job reinstatement.

If FMLA isn’t applicable because you work at a company with fewer than 50 employees, the company’s sick/paid leave policies would apply. Otherwise, hourly employees aren’t guaranteed wages or hours, so they don’t get paid. But read on to see what changes have been made to FMLA because of the coronavirus.

OSHA Statutes and Regulations. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was enacted to reduce hazardous conditions in the American workplace. In addition to creating several specific safety provisions, including industry-specific guidelines for construction, maritime, and agricultural jobs, the OSHA contains a “General Duty Clause” that prohibits any workplace practice that represents a clear risk to workers. The coronavirus would fit under this provision.

Workers Compensation. An employer may pay workers’ compensation for employees who contract the coronavirus depending on how they contracted it. If the employee contracted the disease in the course of their employment because their position requires them to be exposed to individuals who are infected (such as health care workers), the company may have worker’s comp liability. However, if an employee incidentally contracts the disease from a co-worker, workers’ compensation liability would be unlikely.

Help is on the Way: The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) was signed into law on March 18th by President Trump. This law contains two important provisions—the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act and Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act. These parts of the legislation affect employers of fewer than 500 employees and public agency employers. These provisions take effect 15 days after enactment, so employers that fall under this new law must act now to ensure compliance by April 2nd.

Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act. The FFCRA amends and expands the coverage of FMLA to give Public Health Emergency Leave to employees who have worked in their positions at least 30 days (instead of one year). This new expansion of FMLA applies even to employers of fewer than 50 employees, so now companies that were not previously covered by the FMLA will now be required to implement leave policies…some for the first time. That will be a big help to Floridians who do not have paid leave.

In addition, an amendment provides paid leave to employees who can’t work or telework because of a need to care for a child under 18 where school or childcare has closed or isn’t available.

Note that under the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, the first 10 days of the employee’s leave may consist of unpaid leave; however, an employee can use any accrued paid leave (vacation, personal or medical or sick leave) for that unpaid leave period if the have it.

The pay is based on two-thirds of the worker’s regular rate of pay and the number of hours she would normally work. That amount can’t exceed $200 per day in compensation and $10,000 in the aggregate for any employee.

Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act

The FFCRA also provides for Emergency Paid Sick Leave of up to two weeks’ pay for reasons relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons include an employee’s own health condition, quarantine, or providing care for a dependent who is subject to quarantine or whose school or care provider is closed. There’s no amount of time on the job required to use this new benefit. Everyone is eligible.

Exemptions and Exclusions. The new legislation stipulates that the Secretary of Labor can exclude certain healthcare providers and emergency providers from coverage and can also exempt small (fewer than 50 employees) businesses when compliance would “jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.” Healthcare providers and emergency response employers may elect to exclude such employees from the paid sick time and new FMLA requirements.

The FFCRA gives tax relief to employers, and they can recoup costs from tax credits against social security and certain other payroll taxes. Employers are required to track expenses and request the credits. In the event that an employer is still overpaid in taxes, it can ask the federal government for a tax refund.

The new law prohibits discrimination or employment retaliation against those who leave or file complaints under the FFCRA.

The FFCRA and its requirements are now set to expire on December 31, 2020.

Takeaway

Hopefully, your employer is on top of things and has explained your company sick leave policy. If you don’t have paid sick leave, the FFCRA now permits workers to take leave due to coronavirus issues.

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