SALT LAKE CITY — The coronavirus is putting pressure on employees forced to take time off to contend with the effects of the ongoing outbreak on themselves and their families, as well as employers who must manage their companies’ operations in the wake of legally mandated leave.
Across the country and in Utah, companies and their workers are trying to balance the need to take time away from their jobs to cope with the impact of COVID-19 and keeping their jobs. While laws already exist to govern traditional sick leave, the pandemic has prompted even more regulations for employers to follow.
The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 is a federal law applying to employers with 50 or more employees, or to all public employers. It requires these entities to provide to eligible employees unpaid time away from work up to 12 work weeks in a 12-month period of time, explained Ryan Nelson, president of Employers Council Utah. During that protected time, the worker’s health insurance and other benefits continue and they are provided reinstatement rights upon their return, he added.
“So when I come back from leave, I receive the same or an equivalent position to what I had when I left and I’m reinstated back into the workforce as if I’d never been gone,” he said. “The FMLA was available to an employee who had a serious health condition or who was caring for a parent, spouse or child with a serious health condition.”
Now Congress has added new protections developed specifically to address the effects of coronavirus on current workplaces, he noted. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act signed on March 18 also provides for paid family sick leave along with expanded emergency family and medical leave, he noted. It takes effect on April 1 and is required to be offered by an employer with 499 employees or less. The law also requires employers to provide their employees with the FFCRA poster detailing their rights under the new measure.
Employees who qualify must use the time off between April 1 and Dec. 31 of this year, Nelson said. Congress purposely created a sunrise and sunset on it because it related specifically to coronavirus, he said.
“(The law applies) regardless of how long the employee has been with the company. So my first day, for example, can be April 1 and on April 2 I could trigger the paid 10 days of sick leave and be gone even though I’ve only worked one day for the company,” Nelson explained. The provisions of the various acts work in tandem with the employment compensation system, he said.
“You have a lot of things working here at the same time. The paid sick leave and the paid FMLA contemplate an absence from work, so because I’m not working for these reasons I have some supplemental income coming in,” he explained. “It’s not going to be perhaps the same as I was making in wages, but it’s something that’s coming in. If I lose my job, or I’m laid off or I’m furloughed, then we have the unemployment compensation system that catches those instances and also the additional unemployment benefits. It’s an extraordinary effort in an extraordinary time.”
He said employers will have the benefit of using tax credits to offset some of the costs incurred through paying for the additional benefits received by the employees.
“Companies when they process their payroll, they are withholding federal taxes from their employees' wages. And then they put that into an electronic bundle and wire it to the IRS or submit it to the IRS as part of their payroll process,” Nelson said. “Well, the money to pay for the paid sick leave and the paid FMLA comes from that pot of money.”
Nelson said companies should seek advice from experienced counsel to ensure they are handling their workers’ leave properly and taking advantage of the credits being offered through the federal laws.
“There’s a limited window of time and that’s 30 days from the 18th of March,” he said. “So that clock is already ticking and employers are already expected to get their arms around this and understand what it means, when it applies, and how it works because April 1 it starts and employers need to be ready for that.”