The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has brought chaos to every aspect of Americans’ lives, and workplaces have not been immune. Employers are struggling to keep up on the latest regulations and best practices while also worrying about their own viability and doing what’s best for their workers.
Thankfully, industry leaders are offering myriad support resources for employers. Among them is Guardian Life, which recently hosted a webinar “10 Things Employers Need to Know Now About Leave Law and Coronavirus”–which was pared down from more than 1,500 questions submitted by employers about the virus.
“We know that the coronavirus pandemic has created major challenges for employers, particularly as they grapple with the new paid leave laws on a national and local level,” says Jeff Wasco, regional director for upstate New York and New England, at Guardian Life. “What we’re seeing is that our clients want to explore ways to enhance their leave administration to do what’s best for their employees. As complexity grows and new leave laws are expeditiously being passed, it’s critical for brokers to partner with industry experts to not only help provide better solutions for their clients, but to provide recommendations on how to create a better experience and outcome for employees.”
Here’s a look at answers to the top 10 questions employers are asking. You can also check out their coronavirus updates hub, which will have the most up-to-date developments.
1. My employee has COVID-19. Now what?
If one of your employees reports a COVID-19 diagnosis, follow these steps:
- Begin business response protocols recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC offers guidance on how to properly clean and sterilize, prevent further exposure, and more.
- Determine your employee’s exposure to others. Find out who your employee has been in contact with at work since their exposure to coronavirus, then notify those people to self-quarantine. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers further guidance on this.
- Manage your diagnosed employee’s absence. Determine your employee’s leave options under the law and your company policies and implement the best option.
2. My employee was exposed to COVID-19 but has no symptoms. What are our options?
According to the CDC, employees who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 but have no symptoms should go into mandatory quarantine as a precaution. Next, the employer must notify all people with whom the employees have had contact since their exposure and advise those people to self-quarantine.
It’s important to determine whether employees are entitled to leave and/or pay during their quarantine. Some points to remember:
- Because they have no symptoms, it’s likely they will not be entitled to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), because they aren’t deemed to have a serious health condition.
- While FMLA has expanded in response to COVID-19, asymptomatic employees under quarantine would not qualify because the expanded provision only applies to people who must care for a child whose school is closed due to mandatory quarantine.
- Determine if the quarantine qualifies for leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).
- Always review other company policies under which the quarantine may apply, such as short-term disability.
3. My employee traveled to a coronavirus hot zone but has no known exposure. Should we do anything?
Yes. Your employee should be quarantined for 14 days per CDC guidelines to monitor health and symptoms.
Ideally, your employee should get a note from a health care professional that says it’s OK for them to return to work. Be aware they might not be able to, however, given how the coronavirus pandemic is currently diverting health care resources.
The Department of Labor is looking for employees to be flexible in this situation. Consider other options, such as allowing your employee to work from home or extend their leave time. Approach each situation on a case-by-case basis and use your best judgment.
4. Schools and daycares are closed. What leaves are available to employees who must take care of their kids?
Under the FFCRA, the FMLA was expanded to provide family leave for an employee who is unable to work (or telework) due to the need to care for a minor son or daughter if the child’s school or childcare facility is closed due to a public health emergency. Employees would be eligible for a full 12 weeks of leave under this leave reason and need to have worked for their employer for only 30 calendar days. However, that FMLA expansion only applies to employers with fewer than 500 employees so employers also should take a look at their company policies to see if other leaves might apply, and be sure to consider state provisions, such as paid sick leave laws triggered by school closures.
5. Our employees are afraid to work despite no known cases in our workplace. Must we accommodate them?
We are in the middle of an unprecedented, global pandemic. If an employee is afraid to come to work, the most important thing you as an employer can do is open up a dialogue with that person and find out why they are scared. Some possible reasons:
- Your employee has a preexisting condition that increases vulnerability to infection. In this case, your employee may be entitled to an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that allows them to work from home.
- Your employee has a mental disorder exacerbated by the fear of COVID-19 infection. In this case, consider letting your employee work from home, or weigh options based on what their healthcare provider recommends.
While employees in this situation most likely will not qualify for FMLA (unless they actually have a serious health condition), it’s important to remember that we’re in completely unexplored territory. The best course of action is to talk with your employee about their concerns and do whatever you can to accommodate them.
6. Will short term disability benefits or other paid leaves apply during a quarantine period?
In general, short term disability benefits will likely not apply if an employee is not sick or disabled as a result of COVID-19. However, it’s important to determine if the employee may be eligible for paid leave under other laws or policies, such as FFCRA, state disability or family leave laws, or other policies in effect at your company.
7. Should we require medical clearance before employees return to work?
It depends on your company policies – but in these trying times, the need for flexibility is important.
If your employee wasn’t ill with COVID-19 or had no known exposure, obtaining medical clearance may be unnecessary, especially if it only puts more strain on the medical resources available to your employee.
At the very least, any employee who was symptomatic or exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 should wait a full 14 days before returning to work.
8. My city has ordered everyone to “shelter in place.” What leaves are available to my employees?
Aside from PTO or other personal leave policies provided by your company, paid leave mandates will likely not apply to an order to stay home and practice social distancing. Rather, it will depend on whether an individual is subject to a mandatory or precautionary order of quarantine or isolation. In that case, it could trigger a leave law depending on the state you are in (for example, this scenario would trigger the state leave law in New York).
If an employee can’t work, most states will allow them to collect unemployment benefits – but you’ll have to look at the unemployment benefit laws in your state, and what conditions trigger them.
9. Does the ADA apply to coronavirus situations?
Yes, in some circumstances.
The coronavirus crisis is profoundly affecting major life activities. Many employees who are suffering from COVID-19 or underlying health condition may fall under ADA protections and be entitled to accommodations as a result. Further, the ADA bans employers from taking negative employment actions based on preconceived notions of a person’s condition. For example, no employer should force employees to have their temperature taken upon arriving at work – that can be a slippery slope.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission offers guidance with regard to pandemics, and specific to COVID-19.
10. An employee wants to take leave to care for a family member who is quarantined. What leaves are available to them?
If their family member has been quarantined but is asymptomatic, they may not be entitled to take leave as if they were disabled or suffering from a serious health condition. Take a look at your company policies, and monitor state leave changes. In addition, if the employee is unable to work or telework because of caring for a family member who is quarantined, he or she may be entitled to the FCCRA paid sick leave provisions.