Latest Developments from the Connecticut General Assembly: The Labor and Public Employees Committee Has Spoken (Part One-COVID-19 Related Bills)

Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law

Following its initial action; https://workingtogether.pullcomblog.com/archives/latest-developments-from-the-connecticut-general-assembly-the-labor-and-public-employees-committee-begins-to-speak-3/; the General Assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee likely finished up its work for this legislative session and approved a final flurry of bills prior to its March 30, 2021 deadline for approving and advancing bills out of committee.

The Committee approved a bevy of bills that addressed COVID-19 related issues. Some of the bills are duplicative; others would make permanent changes (beyond COVID-19 related matters) to the paid sick leave laws and workers’ compensation statutes and even regulate the recall of laid off employees. In any event, here is a summary of these bills (which now await action by the full General Assembly).  

GRAB BAG COVID-19 BILLS: H.B. No. 6595 (“An Act Concerning Labor Matters Related To Covid-19, Personal Protective Equipment And Other Staffing Issues”) and S.B. No. 1002 (“An Act Concerning Labor Issues Related To Covid-19, Personal Protective Equipment And Other Staffing Matters”) are omnibus bills that would, among other things:

  • prohibit employers from “deliberately misinform[ing] or otherwise deliberately dissuad[ing] an employee from filing a claim for workers’ compensation benefits.”
  • create a rebuttable presumption that employees contracting COVID-19 have a covered “occupational disease” under the workers’ compensation laws; the presumption could be rebutted if the employee was working at home, or if the employer clearly demonstrates that employment was not a direct cause.
  • expand recent coverage for post-traumatic stress disorder to include health care providers, EMS and “telecommunicators” involved in responding to COVID-19, or who witness death or “traumatic physical injuries” linked to COVID-19.
  • require employers to notify employees laid-off since March 10, 2020 due to shut-down orders or loss of business (or workforce reductions or furloughs) of all positions that become available for which the employee is “qualified”.  An employee would be deemed to be qualified if the employee: 1) held the same or similar position at the time of the most recent separation from active service with the employer; or 2) is or can be qualified for the position with the same training that would be provided to a new employee hired for the position. The employer shall offer the position in the order of preference set by 1) and 2) above; where more than one employee is entitled to preference for a position, the employer shall offer the position to the employee with the greatest length of service at the employment site.
  • require employers to provide paid sick leave (up to 80 hours) for events qualifying for Emergency Paid Sick Leave under the expired Families First Coronavirus Response Act (in addition to the current statutory paid sick leave.)
  • establish an “Essential Employees Pandemic Pay Grant Program” to administer and award grants so that employers can pay, for the period of March 10, 2020-April 20, 2021, an additional $5/hour to “essential employees” (employees deemed eligible by the CT DPH as of February 20, 2021 to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in phase 1a or 1b of the vaccination program) and $10/hour for “specialized risk employees” (employees required to work in congregate settings or with persons infected with COVID-19, and personal care attendants) if the employer received a grant in the full amount for which it applied, or prorated as necessary to distribute the grant funds.  No employer may deny such compensation based upon the quality or type of work the covered employee performed during this period.

PAID SICK LEAVE: H.B. No. 6537 (“An Act Concerning Expansion Of Paid Sick Days And Domestic Worker Coverage”) would revise the state’s current paid sick leave law by 1) covering all private sector employers (as opposed to just those employers with at least 50 employees and just “service workers”), 2) broadening the types of family members for whom an employee may use the leave (for care) from just children and spouses so as to include adult children, siblings, parents, grandparents, grandchildren, and “anyone related by blood or affinity whose close association is the equivalent” of these family members; 3) increasing the rate at which employees accrue leave (one hour per every 30 hour worked instead of the current 40 hours) and removing the current 680 hours worked waiting period before they may use it; and 4) broadening the reasons for which an employee may use sick leave to include when the employer’s place of business is closed by order of a public official due to a public health emergency or an employee needs to care for a family member whose school or place of care has been closed by such an order.  In addition to the amount of leave provided under the current law, the bill would require all private-sector employers to provide additional COVID-19 related sick leave of at least 80 hours to their full-time employees and a prorated amount of leave for other employees. The bill allows employees to use the leave retroactively to March 10, 2020, and until four weeks after the Governor’s emergency declarations expire.  Similar to the Emergency Paid Sick Leave under the (federal) Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employees may use the COVID-19 sick leave for complying with a COVID-19 quarantine order; caring for a family member subject to a quarantine order; caring for a child whose school was closed due to COVID-19; or having a health condition that may increase the employee’s susceptibility to COVID-19.  Employees must be paid their normal hourly wage for their time on leave.

REMOTE WORK AND EQUIPMENT: H.B. No. 6536 (“An Act Requiring Adequate Equipment And Reimbursement For Employees Working From Home”) would require employers to reimburse employees for all “necessary expenditures” incurred by the employee within the employee’s scope of employment and directly related to services performed for the employer.  The bill defines such “necessary expenditures” as “all expenditures required of the employee by the employer, in the discharge of employment duties that inure to the primary benefit of the employer,” including, but not limited to, the cost of  purchasing 1) equipment and technology (e.g., computers, printers and cell phones); 2) internet provider, mobile internet access and cellular telephone services; and 3) office supplies (e.g., paper, printer ink and toner).   The bill indicates that such “necessary expenditures” do not include expenses 1) agreed to be borne by the employee prior to an assignment to work from home, 2) due to an employee’s own negligence or normal wear or theft, or 3) indirectly related to the employee’s scope of employment, such as costs related to traveling to and from the employee’s regular work location.  The bill provides that an employee shall report to the employer any necessary expenditures and provide appropriate supporting documentation not later than thirty calendar days after incurring the expense (except that an employer may provide additional time for submitting requests for reimbursement in a written expense reimbursement policy) and that the employer shall reimburse the employee for the necessary expenditure no later than thirty calendar days after receiving such appropriate supporting documentation. The bill would empower the Department of Labor to investigate and adjudicate claims of violations (and award appropriate relief and even issues fine), with a right to an administrative appeal to the Superior Court.

LAYOFFS, RECALLS, AND SENIORITY RULES: S.B. No. 658 (“An Act Requiring Employers To Recall Certain Laid-Off Workers In Order Of Seniority”) would require private-sector employers with at least five employees to notify employees laid off between March 10, 2020 and December 31, 2024 (whether due to the lack of business or a reduction or furlough of the employer’s workforce, the COVID-19 related State of Emergency declared by the Governor on March 10, 2020, or other economic, non-disciplinary reasons) about available positions for which a laid-off employee is qualified. An employee would be deemed to be qualified if the employee: 1) Held the same or similar position at the time of the most recent separation from active service with the employer; or 2) is or can be qualified for the position with the same training that would be provided to a new employee hired for the position. The employer shall offer the position in the order of preference set by 1) and 2) above; where more than one employee is entitled to preference for a position, the employer shall offer the position to the employee with the greatest length of service at the employment site.  An offer of employment to a laid-off employee shall be in the same classification or job title at substantially the same employment site, and with substantially the same duties, compensation, benefits and working conditions as applied to the laid-off employee immediately prior to March 10, 2020. A laid-off employee who is rehired shall be permitted to work for not less than thirty work days, unless there is just cause for their termination. 

If the laid-off employee declines an employer’s offer job due to age or an underlying health condition of the employee or family members, the laid-off employee has the right to accept the position until the end of the COVID-19-related state of emergency. If an employer hires someone else instead of a laid-off employee, the bill requires the employer to give the laid-off employee a written notice that identifies the other person, including their demographic data, and the reasons for the decision. The bill prohibits employers from retaliating against laid-off employees for exercising their rights under the bill, and it allows a laid-off employee aggrieved by a violation of the bill’s provisions to bring a civil action in Superior Court. 

The bill contains exceptions for circumstances where there has been a change in ownership or organization of the employer after the employee was laid off, or the employer relocates the operations to a different employment site not greater than twenty-five miles away from the original employment site.  The bill also provides that its provisions may be waived in a collective bargaining agreement (if the waiver is in clear and unambiguous terms).  The bill further provides that it should not be construed to invalidate or limit the provisions of any contract or agreement that provides equal or greater protection for laid-off employees; also, it would not be a violation for an employer to follow an order of preference for recall required by a collective bargaining agreement that is different from the order of preference required by this bill.

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION: H.B. No. 6478 (“An Act Concerning Workers’ Compensation”) would create a rebuttable presumption that employees contracting COVID-19 have a covered “occupational disease”; it would be rebuttable if the employee was working at home or the employer clearly demonstrates that employment was not a direct cause.  The bill would prohibit employers from disciplining employees for filing workers’ compensation claims or “deliberately misinform[ing] or otherwise deliberately dissuad[ing] an employee from filing a claim for workers’ compensation benefits.” In addition to replicating the abovementioned COVID-19 omnibus bills, this bill would expand the authority of a workers’ compensation commissioner to award additional benefits to a claimant who has exhausted his or her partial permanent disability (“PPD”) benefits from the current limits of the lesser of the duration of the claimant’s PPD benefits (or 520 weeks) to the lesser of five times the duration of the claimant’s PPD benefits or (780 weeks), respectively. 

WORKERS’ COMPENSATION AND PTSD: S.B. No. 660 (“An Act Expanding Workers’ Compensation Benefits For Certain Mental Or Emotional Impairments Suffered By Health Care Providers In Connection With Covid-19”) would expand workers’ compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder for witnessing certain traumatic events (e.g., certain deaths or maiming) to include health care providers, EMS personnel, Department of Correction employees and “telecommunicatorsm,” and to specifically cover health care providers involved in responding to COVID-19, or who witness death or “traumatic physical injuries” linked to COVID-19.

UNEMPLOYMENT COMPENSATION: H.B. No. 5377 (“An Act Concerning The Removal Of COVID-19 Related Layoffs From The Unemployment Compensation Experience Account”) provides that to the extent allowed by federal law “and as necessary to respond to the spread of COVID-19,” for any taxable year commencing on or after January 1, 2022, the experience period shall be calculated without regard to benefit charges and taxable wages for the experience years ending June 30, 2020, and June 30, 2021.

Stay tuned.

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