WRANGLING ALL THAT COVID-19 NEWS – THE LAST (NOPE…) WE MEAN NEXT ROUND-UP

Posted On April 29, 2020  

by Marti Cardi, Esq. - Vice President, Product Compliance

& Armando Rodriguez, JD - Law Clerk, Compliance And Legal Department

April 29, 2020

 

Cowboy Radar

COVID news just keeps coming. In our last Roundup we covered the DOL’s latest FFCRA Q&As, USERRA and COVID-19, and orders from the governors of California and Washington. Today we saddle up with:

  • More ADA guidance from the EEOC
  • OSHA – employer obligations to provide a safe workplace
  • COVID goes to court
  • COVID in the city
  • Colorado joins the rodeo

More ADA Guidance from the EEOC

As we previously reported here and here, the EEOC offers employers assistance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act in its document What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA. The agency has lately added more questions and answers to the guidance. In short, all the usual ADA rules and requirements continue to apply but they may take on a new hue in a request related to COVID-19.

Here are some of the key takeaways, but be sure to consult the full document – this is a summary and the EEOC has much more info for you!

A.6. May an employer administer a COVID-19 test (a test to detect the presence of the COVID-19 virus) before permitting employees to enter the workplace? 4/23/20

Yes. Employers may take steps to determine if employees entering the workplace have COVID-19 because an individual with the virus will pose a direct threat to the health of others. However, employers should ensure that the tests are accurate and reliable and should still require – to the greatest extent possible – that employees admitted to the workplace observe infection control practices to prevent transmission of the virus. (And see the OSHA segment below.)

D.6. [See also D.5] During the pandemic, may an employer still engage in the interactive process and request information from an employee about why an accommodation is needed?  (4/17/20)

Yes, even during COVID days, an employer may ask questions or request medical documentation to determine whether the employee’s disability necessitates an accommodation, either the one he requested or any other. Possible questions for the employee, now and in any ADA case, may include: (1) how the disability creates a limitation, (2) how the requested accommodation will effectively address the limitation, (3) whether another form of accommodation could effectively address the issue, and (4) how a proposed accommodation will enable the employee to continue performing the “essential functions” of his position (that is, the fundamental job duties).  

D.7. If there is some urgency to providing an accommodation, or the employer has limited time available to discuss the request during the pandemic, may an employer provide a temporary accommodation? (4/17/20)

Yes. Employers may choose to forgo or shorten the “interactive process” and grant the request. In addition, employers may wish to set an end date for an accommodation expected to be temporary or approve it on a trial basis. This may be pertinent while awaiting medical documentation in order to allow an accommodation that provides protection due to an employee’s heightened risk due to the pandemic. If circumstances change the employer should consider an extension of a temporary accommodation or whether a different accommodation is needed.

D.10. and D.11. What types of undue hardship considerations may be relevant to determine if a requested accommodation poses “significant difficulty” or “significant expense during the COVID-19 pandemic? (4/17/20)

An employer may consider whether current circumstances create “significant difficulty” in acquiring or providing certain accommodations, considering the facts of the particular job and workplace. Examples include increased difficulty due to the pandemic in obtaining special equipment, providing temporary assignments, or removing marginal functions.

As to “significant expense,” the employer can consider sudden loss of some or all of an its income stream because of this pandemic and when current restrictions on an employer’s operations may be lifted. An employer cannot simply reject any accommodation that costs money but must weigh the cost of an accommodation against its current budget and current constraints created by this pandemic. Even under current circumstances, there may be many no-cost or very low-cost accommodations.

If a particular accommodation poses an undue hardship, employers and employees should work together to determine if there may be an alternative that could be provided that does not pose such problems. 

D.12. Does the ADA apply to applicants or employees who are classified as “critical infrastructure workers” or “essential critical workers” by the CDC?

Yes. All employees continue to be covered under the ADA and employers must consider accommodation requests during the pandemic, engage in the interactive process, and provide an effective reasonable accommodation if it doesn’t pose an undue hardship.

Coronavirus Goes to Court

The first known COVID-19 lawsuit has hit the courts! (Can a Movie-of-the-Week be far behind?) Plaintiff Amy Reggio lives in Dallas County, TX. According to the complaint, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who is in charge of Dallas County’s coronavirus response, issued orders requiring all individuals anywhere in Dallas County to “shelter in place.” Reggio worked as general counsel for a real estate development and investment firm which, she alleges, is not an “essential business” under the Dallas County stay-at-home order. Reggio informed her boss Mark Tekin of the order and of her inability to leave home and go to work as a result. Reggio told Tekin she could perform all of her job duties from home, but claims Tekin said “working from home did not work for him and it would not be allowed or considered.” Reggio explained to Tekin that if she violated the Dallas County order she could be subject to criminal prosecution, including imprisonment. Tekin terminated Reggio on March 27 when she continued to refuse to violate the Dallas County order and go to work.

Reggio’s claim is based on a legal theory known as “public policy wrongful discharge.” An employee may assert this claim when (1) her employer required her to commit an illegal act that carries criminal penalties; (2) the employee refused to engage in the illegality; (3) the employee was discharged by employer; and (4) the sole reason for the employee’s discharge was her refusal to commit the unlawful act. Reggio’s allegations check all four of these boxes, so game on! She is asking for $1 million in damages, include lost wages and benefits, other compensatory damages, and punitive damages. It’s very early yet in this litigation but my bets are on Reggio and a quick settlement – although probably not a million bucks.

The case is Reggio v. Tekin & Assoc., LLC (Dallas County Court, Texas No. CC-20-01986 B).

Lessons for employers. These tough times call for new ways of doing things. Employers need to be flexible and approach difficult situations with an open mind. Remember, special measures imposed as a result of COVID-19 are temporary, so allowing something that is not usually done can also be temporary. This was not a situation where the employee, on her own, decided not to go to work because she was uncomfortable or concerned about being exposed to the virus. In that case the employer might be able to require the employee come to work, but it needs to take appropriate measures in the workplace to ensure a safe environment – and for that issue, read on!

OSHA, COVID-19, and the Employer’s Obligation to Provide a Safe Workplace

As we look forward to a return to the usual workplace and routines, understanding an employer’s OSHA obligations with respect to COVID-19 is especially important. Employers are required to provide a safe workplace and appropriate safety equipment for workers. Employers outside of a manufacturing, processing, or other heavy industry may not regularly think about OSHA requirements. The occasional office paper cut just doesn’t stir much concern.

But now we are in COVID-land. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration administers laws that regulate worker safety, which will take on new significance as employees go back to the office. Two provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act are particularly applicable to COVID-19 in the workplace:

The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) requires employers to furnish to each worker “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

OSHA’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) standards (in general industry, 29 CFR 1910 Subpart I), requires using gloves, eye and face protection, and respiratory protection when job hazards warrant it.

So, new measures like spacing of desks, ample supplies of hand sanitizers and wipes, and limitations on use of common spaces and facilities may become necessary to fulfill an employer’s OSHA obligations. OSHA recently issued a booklet, Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19. Recommendations include the now-familiar handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes, but also an important reminder that employees should not use each other’s workspace, telephone, and other work tools and equipment. You can find more information at the OSHA COVID-19 website, and there are loads of on line resources with ideas.  

In addition, states may have their own workplace safety laws and regulations. There are twenty-eight OSHA-approved State Plans, operating state-wide occupational safety and health programs. State Plans are required to have standards and enforcement programs that are at least as effective as OSHA’s and may have different or more stringent requirements.

In these days of increasing work from home, there is one bit of good news: OSHA will not conduct inspections of employees’ home offices, will not hold employers liable for employees’ home offices, and does not expect employers to inspect the home offices of their employees. For more information see OSHA’s Directive on Home-Based Worksites.

As we move toward returning employees to the workplace, employers should develop a plan for what that will look like. Just be safe and be smart.

COVID in the City

OK, that doesn’t have the same ring as that TV show title – and it’s not nearly as much fun. Still, several cities are making news with their very own COVID-19 leave of absence laws. California seems to be the hotbed of such activity (Who saw that coming?). These COVID-19 ordinances vary by city (of course) but most have some common features:

  • Employer coverage picks up where FFCRA left off – most apply to employers with 500 or more employees.
  • Leave reasons mimic FFCRA, although some add new leave reasons as well, such as closure of a family
    member’s senior care facility or if the employee is age 65 or older or has an underlying high-risk
    health condition
  • Amount of paid sick leave also mimics FFCRA, with 80 hours of paid leave for full-time employees and
    the equivalent of two weeks’ pay for part-time employees, often capped at $511 per day or $5,110
    total per employee.
  • Health care workers are often exempted, at least as to leave for any reason other than their own
    COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine.

San Francisco’s Public Health Emergency Leave Ordinance is in effect from April 17 through June 16, expiring on June 17, 2020 or when the Public Health Emergency is terminated, whichever is first.  Guidance from the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement is available here.

Los Angeles’s ordinance for Supplemental Paid Sick Leave has been superseded by an Emergency Order signed by Mayor Garcetti, cutting back on the scope of the ordinance. The Emergency Order will remain in effect until two calendar weeks after the expiration of the COVID-19 local emergency period.

San Jose’s Urgency Ordinance providing temporary paid sick leave for COVID-19-related reasons is in effect from April 7 through December 31, 2020. Guidance and additional resources from the San Jose Office of Equality are available here.

Remember that many municipalities (and states) have existing paid sick leave laws that are likely to cover a variety of COVID-related needs for time off. My go-to resource is A Better Balance for a chart of paid sick leave laws across the country.

Colorado Joins the Rodeo

Colorado originally passed its Health Emergency Leave with Pay (Nominee for Best Acronym in a COVID-related program: HELP) rules on March 11 but has since significantly increased the scope of industries covered and the duration of paid leave. The rules are effective for 30 days after adoption (presently through May 27) or the duration of the State of Disaster Emergency declare by the Colorado governor, but with a maximum of 120 days after April 27. Including amendments adopted through April 27, here’s what the rules now provide:

All employees of a covered industry and working in a covered position are eligible for HELP. (Heehee, that totally works in a sentence! Good job, Colorado!)

Covered employers include those engaged in, or employing workers in, numerous industries, with no employer size limitations (coverage was effective as of March 11 unless a different date is indicated). Examples: leisure and hospitality, retail, real estate, office work, elective health services, personal care services, food and beverage manufacturing and services, education, and various elder or community care services. For details see the Colorado HELP website.

Paid leave is available for up to two weeks, with a maximum of 80 hours. Pay is at 2/3 of the employee’s usual rate, with no dollar caps. Paid sick leave ends following certain periods of being symptom free.

HELP provides leave for only one reason, to an employee:

  • with flu-like or respiratory illness symptoms and
  • who is (1) being tested for COVID-19 or (2) under instructions from a health care provider or
    authorized government official to quarantine or isolate due to a risk of having COVID-19.
A employer who already provides as much paid sick leave as required by the rules is excused from compliance. An employer who provides less paid sick leave than required by the rules must provide additional paid sick leave up to the amount required by HELP.

However, if an employee has exhausted all paid sick leave allotted by the employer, then the employer must provide additional paid sick leave up to the amount required by HELP.

The employer can require documentation to support the leave but with certain limitations:

  • Documentation can be required only after the employee’s return from leave, not as a precondition
    of taking or remaining on leave. An employee may not be terminated for failure to provide
    documentation during the illness.
  • If documentation is not available from a health care provider or the provider of the employee’s
    COVID-19 test, the employer must accept a written statement from the employee providing the
    pertinent information.

In an odd provision that is likely to give small employers heartburn, the rules provide, “To the extent feasible, employees and employers should comply with the procedures of the federal Family [and] Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to pursue and provide paid sick leave under these rules . . . ” This leaves a whole lot of open range as to exactly what that means and to what extent it is mandatory.

Employees must provide advance notice of the need for leave as soon as possible, unless they are too ill to communicate, and notice within 24 hours of getting a COVID-19 test or receiving instructions to quarantine or isolate.

Additional information is available on the Colorado HELP website.

Just When You Thought It was Safe: COVID Webinar II: The Revenge

Hopefully you joined my Reliance Standard colleague Karen Joseph a couple weeks ago for our webinar on COVID related federal and state leave legislation and how to apply it. If you didn’t, or even if you did and you want to prepare for the follow-up, you can access the slides as well as the recording. And while it’s no Season 3 of Ozark, I would say it’s required if you want to join us for the sequel:

On Thursday, May 7 at 2 PM Eastern, Karen and I will get back in that saddle and peel back some of these new developments at the national (OSHA), state and even local levels – plus we’ll incorporate some of your awesome questions from the first round. Plan to attend! Click here to register. Once you see the screen pop up with your name, go ahead and close the box: We will email you a confirmation before the event. (If you don’t get your email confirmation, note the date and time, because the link to join is the same as the registration link.)

See you there!

COVID CATCH-UP: NEWS FROM THE DOL, CDC, AND EEOC

Posted On April 13, 2020  

by Marti Cardi, Esq. - Vice President, Product Compliance

April 13, 2020

 

The best thing about the just-concluded long weekend is that it gave me a chance to catch up on the latest Coronavirus guidance issued by various entities. Top of the world, Ma! Here are 3 for today’s reading pleasure:

COVID-19 QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS: ROUND 4 FROM THE DOL
The U.S. Department of Labor has issued the fourth set of questions and answers relating to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act’s Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSL) and Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFML). This edition has 20 new questions, starting with #60. There are no surprises but some of the answers do provide helpful interpretive information. As you read, remember this guiding principle:

In order to receive EPSL and/or EFML benefits, (1) the employer must have work available for the employee; and (2) the employee must be unable to perform the work (or telework) due to the COVID-19 reason. So, for example, if an employee must stay home to care for a small child due to a school closure but the employer has closed its place of business and has no work the employee could otherwise perform, the employee is not entitled to pay benefits.

Quarantine orders (Question 60). For purposes of EPSL, a quarantine or isolation order includes a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order issued by any federal, state, or local government authority as well as a specific order directed at an individual employee or family member.

Self-quarantine (Questions 61-62, 65). An employee may receive benefits during a self-quarantine only when acting pursuant to the advice of a health care provider. The employee’s own opinion that he should stay away from others will not support a claim for FFCRA pay benefits. The same applies for leave to care for an individual in self-quarantine.

Care for others who are quarantined (Questions 63-65). An employee may be able take EPSL to care for another individual who is under a governmental order of quarantine or isolation or who is quarantined pursuant to the advice of a health care provider, but must meet the following criteria: (1) the individual is unable to care for herself (2) the individual depends on the employee for care; and (3) providing the care prevents the employee from working or teleworking.

An “individual” for whom an employee may provide care is limited to a member of the employee’s immediate family (not defined), someone who regularly resides in the employee’s home, or someone with whom the employee has a relationship that creates an expectation of care. There must be a personal relationship between the employee and the individual.

Age of child; care of child (Questions 66, 71-72, 40). Both EPSL and EFML are available to care for a child in quarantine or whose school or place of care has closed if the child is under age 18 or is 18 or older and in capable of self-care because of a disability.

An employee may take EFML only to care for his own son or daughter due to a school or day care closer or other unavailability of daycare. “Son or daughter” is defined for this purpose the same as under the regular FMLA: Biological, adopted, or foster child, stepchild, legal ward, or a child for whom the employee stands in loco parentis.

On the other hand, an employee may take EPSL to care for an “individual,” which is defined much more broadly than “son or daughter” (see above, Question 64) and therefore might include a child who is not the employee’s own son or daughter.

School or “place of care” closure, unavailability of “child care provider” (Questions 67-70). A “place of care” is a physical location in which care is provided for a child. It does not have to be dedicated solely to this purpose. Traditional day care facilities and preschools are included, as well as before and after school care programs, homes, and summer camps. This leads us to wonder, what will happen when summer hits if school closures are still in effect? Will parents be able to take leave when a different place of care that they would then have relied on is still closed? Remember, 12 weeks of leave staring April 1, for example, will extend to June 23.

A “child care provider” is defined to include both (1) paid individuals such as au pairs, nannies, and babysitters, and (2) individuals who regularly provide care at no cost, such as family members, friends, or neighbors.

An employee can take leave to care for a child due to a school closure, etc., only when the employee is actually needed to care for the child and is unable to work as a result. Leave is not available if another provider such as a co-parent is available.

A school is considered closed even if it is offering online instruction or other at-home schooling resources. Closure of the physical location is what counts.

Workers’ compensation and temporary disability benefits (Question 76). An employee currently receiving workers’ comp and disability benefits through a state- or employer-provided plan is not eligible to receive paid leave under EPSL or EFML. Such benefits are paid because the employee is unable to work due to an injury or illness. The DOL has not addressed how the EPSL and EFML benefits interact with paid family leave, if the employee’s reason for leave is covered by each.

FFCRA benefits and current leaves of absence (Question 77). An employee on a current leave of absence is not entitled to EPSL or EFML benefits because they are not working and in need of leave. However, an employee on a voluntary leave of absence (for example, bonding with a new child or on sabbatical or vacation) can chose to end the leave and take FFCRA benefits for a qualifying reason that then prevents the employee from working. On the other hand, if an employee is on a mandatory leave of absence (e.g., a disciplinary suspension), it is that mandatory leave that is preventing the employee from working, not a FFCRA-qualifying reason, so no benefits are available.

DOL enforcement (Questions 78-79). The DOL has stated it will not bring an enforcement action against an employer for violations of EPSL or EFML occurring within 30 days of enactment (from March 18 through April 17). This does not mean employers don’t need to comply until April 18. Rather, the DOL will expect employers to use good faith efforts to comply, correct any violations that occur during that period, and commit to ongoing compliance. Otherwise, the DOL will retroactively enforce violations back to April 1, 2020.

Other topics covered in Round 4 include counting employees of a staffing company (Question 74) and calculating pay for seasonal employees (Question 75).

CDC GUIDANCE FOR EXPOSED CRITICAL WORKERS
Recognizing the need to keep employees in certain key industries working, the Centers for Disease Control has issued an Interim Guidance for Implementing Safety Practices for Critical Infrastructure Workers Who May Have Had Exposure to a Person with Suspected or Confirmed COVID-19. (#mouthful!) The Guidance applies to these employees:

  • Federal, state, & local law enforcement
  • 911 call center employees
  • Fusion Center employees
  • Hazardous material responders from government and the private sector
  • Janitorial staff and other custodial staff
  • Workers – including contracted vendors – in food and agriculture, critical manufacturing,
    informational technology, transportation, energy and government facilities

Workers who have had a potential exposure are permitted to keep working provided they are asymptomatic and take additional workplace precautions:

  • Pre-Screen for temperature and symptoms before entering a facility or starting work
  • Regular Monitoring under the supervision of the employer’s occupational health program.
  • Wear a Mask
  • Practice social distancing
  • Disinfect and clean work spaces routinely, such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, and
    shared electronic equipment

More information is available in the Interim Guidance.

EEOC UPDATED ADA COVID-19 GUIDANCE
Ages ago (well, it was early March – how time flies!) we blogged about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance on COVID-19 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The information in that post is still accurate and provides the answers to many workplace questions relating to the ADA and COVID-19.

On April 9 the EEOC came out with an updated guidance, What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws. The update covers several topics such as medical inquiries, confidentiality, hiring and onboarding, and furloughs. Of greatest to us in the absence and accommodations business are the new questions and answers about COVID-19 and accommodations.

The update starts with a recommendation to consult with the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) for assistance with accommodations, a suggestion with which we at Matrix heartily agree. JAN’s materials specific to COVID-19 are here In the meantime, here is the new guidance. (I borrowed liberally from the EEOC document itself rather than reinvent the wheel.)

D.1. If a job may only be performed at the workplace, are there reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities absent undue hardship that could offer protection to an employee who, due to a preexisting disability, is at higher risk from COVID-19? (4/9/20)

Yes. Some of these “accommodations” may have already been implemented for all employees but consider:

  • Changes to the work environment such as designating one-way aisles; using
    Plexiglas, tables, or other barriers to ensure minimum distances between customers
    and coworkers
  • Temporary job restructuring of marginal job duties
  • Temporary transfers to a different position
  • Modifying a work schedule or shift assignment.

D.2. If an employee has a preexisting mental illness or disorder that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, may he now be entitled to a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship)? (4/9/20)

Yes. Employees with certain preexisting mental health conditions, for example, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, may have more difficulty than other employees handling the disruption to daily life that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers may ask questions to determine whether the condition is a disability; discuss with the employee how the requested accommodation would assist him and enable him to keep working; explore alternative accommodations that may effectively meet his needs; and request medical documentation if needed.

D.3. In a workplace where all employees are required to telework during this time, should an employer postpone discussing a request from an employee with a disability for an accommodation that will not be needed until he returns to the workplace when mandatory telework ends? (4/9/20)

Not necessarily. An employer may give higher priority to discussing requests for reasonable accommodations that are needed while teleworking, but the employer may begin discussing this request now. The employer may be able to acquire all the information it needs to make a decision. If a reasonable accommodation is granted, the employer also may be able to make some arrangements for the accommodation in advance.

D.4. What if an employee was already receiving a reasonable accommodation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and now requests an additional or altered accommodation? (4/9/20)

An employee who was already receiving a reasonable accommodation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic may be entitled to an additional or altered accommodation, absent undue hardship. The employer may discuss with the employee whether the same or a different disability is the basis for this new request and why an additional or altered accommodation is needed.

As an additional resource, check out the transcript of the webinar held on March 27 regarding the laws EEOC enforces and COVID-19.

Matrix can Help!  

Sure, we are your one-stop shop for COVID-19 leave information, but we are so much more! At some point, hopefully soon, we will all be focusing less on coping and more on growing; and you will see we continue to shine! Subscribe (now! do it!),  and keep us in mind as you ready your Company programs for tomorrow and the many days after. We can, and will, help.

WHOOPEE! MORE FFCRA GUIDANCE! DOL ISSUES TEMPORARY REGULATIONS

Posted On April 03, 2020  

by Marti Cardi, Esq. - Vice President, Product Compliance

April 03, 2020

 

Perhaps I shouldn’t be flippant, but seems like every other day brings more guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on the new paid leave benefits available to many employees under the iStockFamilies First Coronavirus Response Act.  Oh, wait, it doesn’t just seem like every other day…!

But, the latest DOL offering – the FFCRA Temporary Regulations – is very important. In a mere 124 pages (in all fairness, double spaced) the DOL sets out its official interpretation of what is, by general consensus, a very confusing law. I have read the regulations and found some degree of clarity from them. Now it’s time to offer my learnings to you, my faithful readers.  Taking metaphorical pen in hand, I begin our journey:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, sorry, I was daydreaming that I worked for a company with hundreds of employment lawyers, with whom I could share the load.

But wait – I don’t, but Jeff Nowak does!  So, my friends, rather than reinventing the wheel on a Friday evening in April, I am going to point you to Jeff’s blog FMLA Insights for his thoughtful analysis and summary of the FFCRA regulations.  Thank you, Jeff and colleagues!

But don’t think I have nothing to do now!  At Matrix, we are training our folks, creating new intake procedures and new forms, answering client questions (we get tons, and they get more granular every day!).  We are Mission-Ready to administer the expanded FMLA and all the new COVID-19-related state laws and regulations that are also coming at us fast and furious.  And the rest of Matrix’s compliance team is working to hold down the fort and handle all of our other compliance responsibilities. Even in these challenging times, we are committed to providing our clients with top notch leave, disability, and accommodations services in all regards.

And as a final note, in case you need a little light reading for the weekend, here are some links to a DOL COVID-19 webinar you might find useful – both for yourself and your employees:

DOL Webinar: The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)

DOL Webinar Slides (PDF)

A YEAR IN REVIEW, A YEAR AHEAD: A LOOK AT THE DOL AND EEOC

Posted On January 19, 2020  

by Marti Cardi, Esq. - Vice President, Product Compliance

January 19, 2020

 

Last month we provided a 2019 review and 2020 look ahead regarding leave law legislation.  You can find that post here.  Now let’s look at what the enforcement agencies accomplished in 2019 and what to expect for 2020.

Part 2:  DOL and EEOC Activities

US DEPARTMENT OF LABOR UPDATE

Opinion Letters

Occasionally the U.S. Department of Labor issues opinion letters as a means of providing interpretive guidance on the FMLA. An opinion letter is an official, written opinion by the DOL of how a particular law applies in specific circumstances.  An opinion letter provides an official, reliable interpretation of the FMLA and its regulations. 

We may not always agree with the DOL’s opinion, but at least we know where the agency stands!

The DOL issued 3 new opinion letters in 2019:

  • Opinion Letter FMLA2019-1-A clarified the question of whether an employee, or employer, can delay
    the designation of a leave of absence taken for an FMLA-qualifying reason, to allow the employee to
    use or exhaust any paid leave benefits prior to doing so. The DOL concluded that the answer is no –
    once the employer is on notice that the employee is seeking leave for a potentially FMLA-qualifying
    reason, it is obligated to provide the required FMLA notices and, if supported, designate the leave as
    FMLA leave.  The opinion letter also reminds us that, while the FMLA allows employers to be more
    generous and grant an employee more leave than FMLA requires, any time the employer gives beyond
    FMLA is not FMLA but, rather, a company policy leave.  To read more about this opinion letter, check
    out our prior blog post.
  • The above opinion was amplified in Opinion Letter FMLA2019-3-A. An employer asked the DOL whether
    it could delay FMLA designation when the terms of a collective bargaining agreement required employees
    to take company paid leave before taking FMLA.  The DOL concluded that the employer cannot delay
    designation as FMLA any leave taken for an FMLA-qualifying reason, even if the terms of a collective
    bargaining agreement appear to require otherwise.
  • Finally, Opinion letter FMLA2019-2-A, addressed the question whether an employee could take FMLA
    to attend meetings to discuss a child’s Individualized Education Plan. The DOL concluded the answer was
    yes.  Attending such meetings constituted “care” for a child with a “serious health condition,” even if the
    meetings did not include a medical provider.  For more details, read our prior blog post on this topic

Coming in 2020:  New DOL FMLA certification forms?

In 2019 the DOL issued proposed new FMLA certification forms for public comment, which we discussed in a prior blog post.  We understand that these proposed certification forms resulted in a deluge of comments to the DOL and Matrix was among that chorus of commentators.  No one knows if or when the DOL will issue new forms but we will certainly be watching will tell you all about them when they do!

Coming in 2020:  DOL request for input on FMLA regulations?

Also in 2019 the DOL announced that it “will solicit comments on ways to improve its regulations under the FMLA to: (a) better protect and suit the needs of workers; and (b) reduce administrative and compliance burdens on employers.”  The notice did not provide a specific timeline for the Request for Information and nothing has happened since the announcement.  There is certainly much to improve in the FMLA regulations – see a discussion in Jeff Nowak’s FMLA Insights blog.  We hope the DOL in fact proceeds with this RFI.  If it does, we will weigh in on changes we feel are needed based our Matrix’s administration of thousands of FMLA claims every year.

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION UPDATE

The Commission.

2019 brought the appointment of Janet Dhillon as Chair of the EEOC.  Chair Dhillon comes from a strong business background, which may be good news for employers.  Time will tell.  That leaves 2 openings on the Commission and about a year (or 5) for President Trump to appoint new commissioners.  The other 2 current Commissioners, in addition to Chair Dhillon, include Charlotte Burrows, appointed by President Obama (2nd term ends in 2023) and Victoria Lipnic, also appointed by President Obama (2nd term ends in 2020).

Also in 2019, Sharon Fast Gustafson was appointed as General Counsel for the Commission.

Focus on disability and pregnancy.

A couple of months ago we took a look at the prevalence of disability and pregnancy-related press releases issued by the EEOC in 2019 through October 20.  That post is available here.  We’ve updated the numbers through the end of 2019:

  • The EEOC issued over 300 press releases relating to lawsuits it filed or
    settled in 2019.
  • 134 (approximately 45%) of these were lawsuits alleging disability or
    pregnancy discrimination
    and failure to accommodate (109 disability-related, 20 pregnancy-related,
    and 5 involving both).
  • Settlements ranged from $16,000 to $2,650,000 in damages awarded to
    the employees.
  • The top of the chart was a $5.2 million jury verdict in an EEOC lawsuit
    alleging failure to
    accommodate a cart pusher at a Walmart store.
    More on that in the blog post linked above!

Statistics.

In late November 2019, the EEOC published its Agency Financial Report. In the report, the EEOC boasts of reducing its inventory of charges to the lowest number of pending charges – 43,580 – in 13 years.  The EEOC also touts its collection of $159.6 million in connection with its mediation process, and $39.1 million in connection with 177 litigation matters.  In its Fiscal Year 2018 (which ended September 2019), the EEOC filed 144 lawsuits, 17 of which alleged a systemic pattern and practice and 27 which were “non-systemic” but had multiple alleged victims of discriminatory practices.

THE DOL GETS BUSY – NEW OPINION LETTER, NEW DRAFT FMLA CERT FORMS!

Posted On August 13, 2019  

by Marti Cardi, Esq. - Vice President, Product Compliance

August 13, 2019

 

The Department of Labor rolled out two new developments last week just in time to leave for August vacations:  First, a new opinion letter addressing whether FMLA covers time taken for specialized child educational meetings; and second, drafts of new (and improved) FMLA certification forms for public comment.

Let’s dig in!

DOL Opinion Letter FMLA2019-2-A – Meetings for Child’s Individualized Educational Program

On August 8, 2019, the DOL released Opinion Letter FMLA2019-2-A relating to whether attending a meeting to discuss a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) qualifies as FMLA leave. 

 

A bit of background:  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to develop an IEP for a child who receives special education and related services with input from the child and the child’s parents, teachers, school administrators, and related services personnel. Under the IDEA, “related services” include such services as audiology services, counseling services, medical services, physical therapy, psychological services, speech-language pathology services, rehabilitation counseling services, among others. 

The individual who requested the opinion letter explained the situation as follows

You explain that your children receive pediatrician-prescribed occupational, speech, and physical therapy provided by their school district, and that four times a year their school holds CSE/IEP meetings to review their educational and medical needs, well-being, and progress. You explain that these meetings include participation by “a speech pathologist, school psychologist, occupational therapist and/or physical therapist employed or contracted by the school district to provide services to the … child under the child’s IEP,” as well as teachers and school administrators. These participants provide updates regarding your children’s progress and areas of concern; review recommendations made by your children’s doctors; review any new test results; and may make recommendations for additional therapy. You ask if your wife may use intermittent FMLA leave for the care of a child to attend these meetings.

I include these details here so it is clear that these are not your everyday parent-teacher conferences or disciplinary meetings – which would generally not be covered by FMLA.

The DOL determined that these meetings did in fact qualify for FMLA intermittent leave.  The wife’s (mother’s) attendance at these CSE/IEP meetings is “care for a family member … with a serious health condition” under 29 C.F.R. § 825.100(a).  And, care for a family member can include “mak[ing] arrangements for changes in care.”  Such FMLA coverage does not require the child’s doctor to be present nor require that the child be receiving treatment at the meetings – providing “care” is sufficient.

Pings for Employers.  Be sure to read my friend Jeff Nowak’s more detailed post on his blog, FMLA Insights. Jeff provides some excellent tips for employers that you will want to heed – including, of course, training your supervisors!

But in a nutshell:  When an employee requests leave to attend meetings relating to the care of a family member (here, a child in specialized education, but it could also be an elderly parent receiving detailed medical treatment), take time to analyze the situation carefully.  Think broadly; don’t just deny the FMLA request because the family member’s condition falls outside our usual concept of a “serious health condition” or because the meeting doesn’t seem to fit within FMLA protection. 

At Matrix our claims examiners have been alerted to this new opinion letter and its significance.  If we receive a request for time off for meetings relating to care of a family member, we will analyze the request for FMLA intermittent leave correctly and obtain appropriate documentation even when the meeting seems at first glance not to be an FMLA-qualifying event.   

 

New Draft FMLA Certification Forms – Now That’s Exciting!

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!  New cert forms!  And a chance to comment!  What more could an FMLA geek ask for to relieve the summer doldrums?

Seriously, this is a welcome step in FMLA-Land.  The current certification forms tend to be cumbersome and, in our experience, often don’t yield all the information the regulations entitle employers to receive.  On August 7 the DOL issued a press release explaining the goal of the new forms:

The revisions will make the forms easier to understand for employers, leave administrators, healthcare providers, and employees seeking leave. The revisions will increase compliance with the law, improve customer service, and improve the administration of the law. WHD drafted the revisions with input from the public in letters, interviews, and public meetings….

The changes will reduce the time it takes a health care provider to provide information, and help leave administrators review and communicate information to employees more directly and clearly, reducing violations.

What’s the status?  The DOL is soliciting public comments on the proposed forms by 11:59 p.m. on October 4, 2019.  The official notice was published in the Federal Register and includes directions for submitting comments. After that date, the DOL will consider the comments received and – eventually – issue new final forms.  There is no timeline for final action by the DOL and, although unlikely, they could decide not to change the forms from the current versions.  Until new forms are officially adopted, the current forms remain approved by the DOL but still optional.  With an expiration date on the current forms of August 31, 2021, the DOL has lots of time!

What are the changes?  The changes are summarized by the DOL as:

  • Fewer questions requiring written responses; replaced by statements that can be verified by simply
    checking a box [These are the best changes, in our humble opinion.  They should result in fewer
    inconsistencies within the form and less confusion regarding the frequency and duration for intermittent
    leave.]
  • Reorganization of medical certification forms to more quickly determine if a medical condition is a
    serious health condition as defined by the FMLA
  • Clarifications to reduce the demand on health care providers for follow-up information
  • More information on the notification forms to better communicate specific information about leave
    conditions to employees
  • Changes to the qualifying exigency certification form to provide clarity to employees about what
    information is required
  • Changes to the military caregiver leave forms to improve consistency and ease of use
  • Layout and style changes to reduce blank space and improve readability

Here are the revised forms, with links for your viewing pleasure:

  • WH-380-E Certification of Health Care Provider for Employee’s Serious Health Condition
  • WH-380-F Certification of Health Care Provider for Family Member’s Serious Health Condition
  • WH-381 Notice of Eligibility of Rights & Responsibilities
  • WH-382 Designation Notice
  • WH-384 Certification of Qualifying Exigency for Military Family Leave
  • WH-385 Certification for Serious Injury or Illness of Covered Servicemember—for Military Family Leave
  • WH-385-V Certification for Serious Injury or Illness of a Veteran for Military Caregiver Leave

What is Matrix Doing?  Several years ago, we at Matrix designed our own certification forms for FMLA leave necessitated by the employee’s or a family member’s serious health condition.  Like the newly proposed DOL revisions, we adopted a simpler means of identifying the type of serious health condition involved with a check-the-box format and reconfigured the questions about leave parameters, including frequency and duration of episodes for intermittent leave.  As the DOL is now hoping, these resulted in significantly clearer provider responses and much less need for follow-up and clarification.

We will review the DOL’s proposed forms and submit comments by the deadline.  If you would like to share with us your own thoughts on the draft forms, please do so!  Once the forms are finalized we will evaluate whether they have gone far enough to simplify leave management and consider using the DOL forms going forward. 

MATRIX CAN HELP!

At Matrix Absence Management, we administer FMLA leaves for employers day in, day out, every day.  Our claims examiners are experts in reviewing FMLA certification forms to ensure we have received all the information the employer is entitled to and that it is clear and makes sense.  Want to harness that expertise? Contact us at ping@matrixcos.com or through your Account Manager.