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March 20, 2020

Coronavirus: Panel provides guidance on new leave rules

Businesses are scrambling to learn the requirements under the new federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which President Trump signed this week in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have been inundated with requests and on the phone constantly with people,” said attorney D. Charles Stohler, who focuses on labor and employment law at the firm Carmody, Torrance Sandak & Hennessey, which has an office in New Haven.

Many companies are seeking information about how the new federal law will impact them, according to Stohler.

On Thursday, the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce and Quinnipiac Chamber of Commerce jointly hosted a human-resources panel discussion on coping and adjusting through the COVID-19, or coronavirus, crisis.

In addition to Stohler, the panel included attorney Patricia Reilly, a partner with the law firm Murtha Cullina, which also has an office in New Haven; and Jennifer Falzone, vice president of human resources at Marrakech Inc., a New Haven non-profit that provides services to individuals with disabilities.

The panelists gave a summary of the various changes included in the new law, which goes into effect on April 2 and extends through the end of the year.

“This is going to have a huge financial impact for employers,” Reilly said. “The whole point [of the law] is to support employees and their ability to care for themselves and their family members.”

“It is new and sweeping legislation,” she added. “It expands the Family & Medical Leave Act significantly.”

Employers with fewer than 500 workers are subject to the rules, though companies with fewer than 50 employees can seek an exemption if the requirements would jeopardize the viability of their enterprise. 

“Otherwise, you must comply,” Reilly said.

Paid Sick Leave
Under the law, many workers are entitled to two weeks, or 80 hours, of paid sick leave. 

Employees may take sick time if they are experiencing coronavirus symptoms, subject to an official isolation or quarantine order, advised by a health-care provider to self-quarantine, caring for a child whose school or day-care facility has closed, or if they need to care for a quarantined person.

When an employee is caring for a family member, the sick leave pay is reduced to two-thirds of the employee’s regular salary for the two-week period. The two weeks of paid sick leave allowed under the law are in addition to whatever sick leave the employer regularly provides, according to the panel.

Reilly urged employers to be flexible about requiring doctor’s notes from employees, as she noted how the medical community is overwhelmed dealing with patients now.

Paid Family Medical Leave
The law also provides covered employees with up to 12 weeks of paid leave under the expanded Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Employees who have been on a business’ payroll for a month are eligible. Workers can now take FMLA leave if they need to care for a child whose school or day care is closed due to the coronavirus threat, and the employee can’t work or telecommute.

The first 10 days of this leave may be unpaid, but workers have the option of using their vacation, personal or sick time. After 10 days, employers must pay the worker’s salary at no less than two-thirds the regular rate for up to 10 weeks. This benefit is capped at $200 per day.

Employers are eligible for tax credits for what they pay out in emergency paid sick leave or FMLA leave.

Stohler noted the law is not in effect yet, and won’t be until April 2. 

If a company has closed already or ceases operation before the law goes into effect, employees would be eligible for unemployment compensation instead, according to Stohler.

New territory

Falzone said the current situation is “uncharted territory” for businesses. At Marrakech, managers are working to stay in constant communication with employees, as she noted how conditions are changing daily. They are also limiting how many people can be in the office at one time, and conducting virtual meetings instead of in-person ones as much as possible. 

“We’re really making sure we are communicating as often as we can with employees,” Falzone said.

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