COVID-19: Employment Law Frequently Asked Questions

Sands Anderson PC

Sands Anderson PC

Do I have to pay my employees time they are taking sick leave because of COVID-19?
Generally no, unless your existing policies and procedures require you to do so. At the moment, Virginia does not have any state laws requiring employers to pay for sick leave.

Does the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) apply to me?
Generally, the FMLA applies to employers with 50 or more employees within 75 miles of one office belonging to the employer. However, there is federal legislation currently pending that make a modified form of the FMLA apply to employers with less than 500 employees. See the below Legal Alert on the Families First Coronavirus Act for more information.

The FMLA applies to me. Does an employee sick with COVID-19 qualify for FMLA leave?
Although illnesses like the flu are not typically a “serious health condition” to qualify for FMLA leave, it is quite possible for COVID-19 (which presents with flu-like symptoms) to trigger FMLA leave, particularly when the symptoms are complicated or severe. Don’t forget that FMLA leave can also be taken by employees who need to take care of family members with a serious health condition. Notably, pending legislation may provide even more FMLA benefits to employees for reasons specifically related to COVID-19. See the below Legal Alert on the Families First Coronavirus Act for more information.

LEGAL ALERT! President Trump signed into law new legislation passed by Congress on March 18, 2020 known as the Families First Coronavirus Act (H.R. 6201).  This legislation establishes two new laws that will go into effect by April 2, 2020: the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFMLEA) and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA).

Under the EFMLEA, generally:

  • FMLA benefits extend to employees who need leave for reasons related to COVID-19;
  • Applies to all employers with fewer than 500 employees;
  • Employers would be required to provide employees who have worked for the preceding 30 calendar days with 12 weeks of leave.  The first 14 days of this extended FMLA leave can be unpaid, but afterwards, the employee would have to be paid at 2/3 of the employee’s regular rate;
  • Extends to cover not only cover employees who are sick with COVID-19 and their family members who need to care for them, but also employees with minor children whose schools are closed.

Under the EPSLA, generally:

  • Applies to public employers and private employers with fewer than 500 employees;
  • All full-time employees of such employers are eligible
  • Employers subject to the act must pay eligible employees with up to paid leave up to 2 weeks (80 hours) if they are sick with COVID-19
    • If the employee is sick, they receive pay at their regular rate up to $511 per day
    • If the employee needs sick leave to care for COVID-19 affected family member, the pay rate is reduced to 2/3 of the employee’s regular pay

Tax credits have been proposed to assist employers offset the cost of providing paid leave.

The Department of Labor is working on regulations to enable employers with less than 50 employees to seek an exemption from the Department of Labor if compliance would “jeopardize the viability” of their business.

Sands Anderson’s employment attorneys will continue to follow this pending legislation as it develops and provide updates to this webpage.

Can I ask employees to check their temperature?
Possibly, yes, but it may not help you identify COVID-19 in your workplace. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers cannot require medical exams (including taking an employee’s temperature) or ask questions about an employee’s disability except when (1) the exam or inquiry is job-related and consistent with business necessity, or (2) the employer has a reasonable belief that the employee poses a “direct threat” to the health or safety of themselves or others (i.e., your other workers) and the threat cannot be eliminated or reduced by a reasonable accommodation. So far, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has stated that during a pandemic, employers should follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and state and local public health directives to figure out if the pandemic counts as a “direct threat.” However, because a person can have COVID-19 without having a fever, it is likely better for employers to refrain from temperature checks.

Additional Resources:

Can I send employees home to self-quarantine or telework/work remotely?
The EEOC confirmed that employers can send employees home when they present with symptoms of COVID-19 to reduce the risk of exposing others, which would not count as a disability-related action because COVID-19 is a pandemic. Also, employers can ask an employee if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 now that it has been classified as a pandemic. In addition, if the employee’s condition is serious enough to pose a “direct threat” to the health and safety of others, sending the employee home would be permitted and requirements to telework may be viewed as a reasonable accommodation if they can perform their job from home.

Must I grant requests from employees to telework as a reasonable accommodation for their disability?
Possibly yes, if the employee with a disability (which may include a COVID-19, as discussed above) can perform the essential functions of their job with the accommodation to work from home. The EEOC recognizes, however, that some jobs cannot be performed at home, such as food servers, cashiers, and truck drivers. Aside from in-person interaction, employers might find that other job duties can’t be performed at home, such as requiring employees to have immediate access to documents or information located only in the workplace. However, employers should not unreasonably turn down telework requests just because an employee has to meet or coordinate information with others. After all, technology like the phone, email, and Zoom can enable employee meetings.

Additional Resources:

What should I do if an employee tests positive for COVID-19?
We recommend that you:

  1. Ask them to identify other workers who may have been exposed to the sick employee.
  2. Keep their identity and the identities of any other employees you may ask to self-quarantine confidential.
  3. Provide a deep-clean of the affected employee’s work space.
  4. Notify building management.

How frequently do I need to pay my employees?
Employees must continue to be paid regularly. Exempt (salaried) employees must be paid at least monthly while non-exempt (hourly) employees must be paid every two weeks.

How do I monitor and manage the hours of my hourly employees who are teleworking?
The best step is proactive communication with your employees. Remind employees that their work schedules still apply (e.g. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) unless they are altered by a supervisor or management. Employees should continue to seek advance approval to work overtime.

If I require employees to take mandatory leave, or reduced hours, how will that impact wage payment requirements?
Employers must pay hourly employees for hours worked. Employers do not need to pay hourly employees for periods where they do not work. Salaried employees must generally receive their full salary for any week in which in which they perform at least some work.

NOTE: Emergency provisions concerning paid leave may also apply and are discussed elsewhere in this FAQ.

Can I reduce the hourly wages or salaries I pay to existing my existing employees?
You may reduce an employee’s salary or rate of pay for future work. Hourly employees must receive at least the minimum wage ($7.25 federal and Virginia, but higher in other states). You must also be careful to ensure that the minimum salary for exempt employees of $35,568.00 is satisfied. An employer may not retroactively reduce an employee’s salary or wages for time already worked.

If I lay off or terminate employees, how soon do I need to provide them with their final paycheck?
In Virginia, a terminated employee (or one who resigns) must receive their final paycheck on or before the employer’s next regularly scheduled pay period.

Can I modify employee duties without changing their pay or exempt status?
An employer does not have to modify employee salaries if it changes their duties. Hourly employees must be paid at least the minimum wage and salaried employees must receive at least the minimum exempt salary ($35,568.00). When modifying duties, it is also important to keep in mind the employee’s primary duties. Assigning temporary or emergency non-exempt duties to an exempt employee (e.g. having a manager also process mail during this pandemic) will not defeat the salary exemption so long as the employee’s primary duties remain exempt. It is a good idea to make clear when assigning any such “all hands-on deck” emergency duties that they are temporary and do not modify the employee’s primary duties.

Do I have to reimburse my employees for supplies like paper, home printers, and Internet access when the telecommute?
Employers may not require employees to pay for or reimburse an employee for business expenses if doing so would reduce the employee’s earning below the minimum wage or overtime compensation. Generally, expenses that an employee would bear regardless of work from home, such as Internet access, telephone lines, and electricity, are not considered “expenses” requiring reimbursement. Employers should be mindful, however, when requiring an employee to purchase specific items, including printer paper, or electronic devices when working from home. This is particularly true with respect to employees making at or near minimum wage, or close to the salary floor for exempt status.

Does workers’ compensation insurance cover workplace accidents that occur in the home while teleworking?
Yes, if the injury arises out of and occurs in the course of employment. This is true regardless of the location of the injury, including during teleworking or offsite projects. An employee would still bear the burden of proving that the injury occurred while he or she was acting in the interest of the employer.

What kind of notice do I need to provide if I decide to shut down all or part of my business during the pandemic?
Most employers with 100 or more employees are required to provide at least 60 days’ notice to employees and the government prior to a mass layoff or the closure of a business unit under the Federal WARN Act. Certain exemptions and modifications apply for emergency situations where 60 days’ notice is not possible. Although Virginia does not have a state WARN Act, many states do and impose more comprehensive requirements on employers.

Will my employees qualify for unemployment if I reduce their hours?
Possibly. A Virginia employer must provide an employee with a “Statement of Partial Unemployment” if it reduces an employee’s hours or move an employee from full time to part time. In many cases, that employee would qualify for partial benefits. Note: An employee is ineligible for benefits if he or she does not work hours offered by the employer. This would include circumstances where the employer offers hours from home (teleworking), or the employer offers altered duties.

Emergency Rules: Virginia has eliminated the one week waiting period for individuals to receive unemployment and enhanced eligibility (such as eligibility for employees who are ordered to self-quarantine) for benefits. Deadlines for work search requirements have also been relaxed during this crisis.

Can I send employees home who are over 60 years old because they are in a higher risk for COVID-19? What if they appear to have a condition that puts them at risk, such as asthma?

 Likely not, if the only reason you are sending employees home is because of their age or perceived disability and the employee is showing no signs of symptoms of COVID-19. Doing so, without a legitimate business reason, might lead to claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, as well as the Americans with Disability Act, particularly if the employee is not seeking the reasonable accommodation of leave to perform the essential functions of their job.  Human resources can make sure that the workforce is fully informed of your leave policies, but making someone go home who has no symptoms of COVID-19 may not be prudent and have the inadvertent effect of inviting a claim of discrimination.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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