Leave In The Time Of COVID-19: Tracking Employee Leave Under The FFCRA And The FMLA

McCarter & English, LLP

McCarter & English, LLP

Since 1993, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has provided job protection to eligible employees who need to take time away from work for specific reasons related to their own health, to care for ill family members, or in connection with the birth and care of the employee’s newborn child. Many states have their own versions of the FMLA that generally overlap with, but can also differ from, the federal FMLA in certain respects. If leave is taken for a reason that is covered under both state and federal FMLAs, the employee is eligible for leave under both statutes, and the employee has available leave left under both laws, then the leave periods run concurrently. In addition, employers often allow employees time away from work for reasons that may or may not be covered under the leave laws. Coordinating and tracking absences taken for these varying purposes can be a daunting task in ordinary times.

And these are most certainly not ordinary times. The COVID-19 pandemic and the response to it have disrupted normal working conditions and resulted in a new world in terms of workplace attendance. Congress recognized as much when it passed the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA), which contained the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act. As described more fully in our prior alerts on these topics (here and here), the two components of the FFCRA provide income replacement and job protection for certain COVID-19-related events. Some of the circumstances covered by the two FFCRA laws would have been covered by the traditional federal FMLA and its state counterparts, but the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act also cover circumstances that would have fallen through the cracks in preexisting leave laws.

Employers need to keep track of an employee’s use of statutory leave time in order to know what available time the employee has left. An employer may voluntarily provide employees with additional leave time beyond statutory entitlements, and in this environment many will, but tracking available time remains important. In order for an employer to properly track the amount of protected leave time an employee has under various statutes, the employer needs to look closely at the circumstances of the employer and the employee, and the reasons for the leave.

Which Laws Cover the Employer?

A primary determinant of coverage under the traditional FMLA, the FFCRA, and state FMLA laws is the size of the employer. For employers with fewer than 50 employees, the traditional FMLA does not apply, while the FFCRA does apply. On the other side, employers with more than 500 employees are covered by traditional FMLA but are not covered by the FFCRA, and therefore nothing has changed for these employers in terms of tracking FMLA. For purposes of the interaction of the traditional FMLA and the FFCRA, those employers with more than 50 but fewer than 500 employees must be meticulous in how they track time away from work in order to properly comply with these laws.

State FMLA laws have their own size requirements. California, Hawai’i, Minnesota, Oregon, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington state, and Wisconsin track the traditional federal FMLA requirement of 50 or more employees for coverage. Connecticut’s FMLA currently applies to employers with 75 or more employees. The District of Columbia’s FMLA applies to employers with 20 or more employees, while the Maine and Vermont versions of the FMLA apply to employers with 15 or more employees. Employers that have operations in these states and are covered by the state law need to separately track leave for employees under these laws.

Which Employees Are Eligible for Which Leaves?

Under the traditional FMLA, employees are not eligible for leave unless they (i) have worked for the employer for 12 months, (ii) have worked at least 1,250 hours in the preceding 12 months, and (iii) work at a work site that has 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius. The FFCRA’s Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act applies to all employees, regardless of length of service, while the FFCRA’s Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act applies to employees who have worked for the employer for at least 30 calendar days. Therefore, there may be times when individual employees are eligible for one form of time off and not another. In such cases, the time taken by the employee counts only against the leave entitlement for which the employee is eligible.

State FMLAs have their own rules with regard to employee eligibility, with some states (e.g., Hawai’i and Oregon) making employees eligible with shorter tenure of employment, while others use the amount of work done in the relevant period preceding the leave. Connecticut, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia require 1,000 hours; Washington state requires 820 hours; Rhode Island and Vermont require an average of 30 hours per week; and Oregon requires an average of at least 25 hours per week. Covered employers in these states must determine whether the individual employee seeking leave qualifies for the state leave.

What Is the Reason For Leave?

For each employee taking time away from work for COVID-19-related reasons, the employer should determine whether the employee is also absent for an event that qualifies for traditional FMLA leave and for leave under a relevant state FMLA. If it does, then the employer should follow its traditional FMLA documentation procedures and count the time against the employee’s 12-week entitlement under federal law.

A careful examination of the reasons for Emergency Paid Sick Leave compared with the reasons for traditional FMLA leave reveals the following areas of overlap:

  • Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act Reason # 1: The employee is unable to work or telework due to a need for leave because the employee is subject to a federal state or local quarantine order related to COVID-19. As the regulations make clear, this applies when the employer has work for the employee to perform and the employee could perform that work but for the quarantine or isolation order. This circumstance is not covered by traditional FMLA, so time away from work for these circumstances does not count against the employee’s traditional FMLA entitlement.
  • Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act Reason # 2: The employee is unable to work or telework due to a need for leave because the employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine for a reason related to COVID-19. A person in this situation also may be entitled to traditional FMLA leave. Traditional FMLA leave is available when the employee has a “serious health condition.” A serious health condition under the FMLA is an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that requires either inpatient care or, in the absence of inpatient care, a period of incapacity of more than three consecutive days and treatment two or more times within 30 days of the first day of incapacity (unless extenuating circumstances exist). Given the current circumstances, with limited testing and an apparently large number of asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, there likely will be many health care providers who advise individuals to quarantine for COVID-19 when the individual does not actually have a serious health condition. Others in that situation may well have a case of COVID-19 that qualifies as a serious health condition. Employers may ask employees for information necessary to determine whether the employee’s condition qualifies for traditional FMLA leave. The employer should use its normal FMLA paperwork for such inquiries. If the employee is suffering from his or her own serious health condition, then the time would be covered by the FMLA and would count against the 12-week entitlement; if not, then it would not.
  • Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act Reason # 3: The employee is unable to work or telework due to a need for leave because the employee is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and is seeking a medical diagnosis. As with reason # 2, this may or may not qualify as a serious health condition under the FMLA; the employer should grant the Emergency Paid Sick Leave under the FFCRA and follow up to determine whether the employee has a serious health condition.
  • Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act Reason # 4: The employee is unable to work or telework due to a need for leave because the employee is caring for an individual subject to an order described in reason # 1 or self-quarantine as described in reason # 2. Unless the person being cared for is a son, daughter, spouse, or parent as defined under the FMLA and has a serious health condition, this would not count against the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement. The employer must ask for the documentation identified in the U.S. Department of Labor’s FFCRA regulations, specifically 29 CFR § 826.100 (these documentation requirements are discussed in our prior Alert on the FFCRA regulations), and may ask for a medical certification if it believes that this is an FMLA-qualifying event.
  • Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act Reason # 5/Emergency Expanded Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act Sole Reason: The employee is unable to work or telework due to a need for leave because the employee is caring for his or her child due to a school closure or child care unavailability. For employees with less than 30 days’ tenure with the employer, this time is available only under the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act and therefore will not count against the FMLA or Expanded FMLA entitlement. For employees with more than 30 days’ service with the employer, the paid sick time runs concurrently with the Expanded FMLA and counts against the employee’s total FMLA entitlement.

For leave taken under the Emergency Family and Medical Expansion Act, moreover, there is an additional consideration that arises from the fact that the law is in place only from April 1 through December 31, 2020, and involves reimbursement by the federal government. Under the traditional FMLA, an employer may choose the 12-month period applicable to the leave using (i) a calendar year; (ii) any other fixed 12-month period; (iii) the 12-month period measured from the employee’s first day of leave; or (iv) a “rolling” 12-month period measured backward from the date the employee first uses any FMLA leave. Under the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, however, an employee may take a maximum of 12 weeks of Expanded Family and Medical Leave during the period from April 1 to December 31, 2020. Therefore, if an employer has designated a 12-month period beginning July 1 each year, for example, then an employee would be entitled to take 12 weeks of traditional FMLA during April, May, and June 2020, and then on July 1, 2020, the employee would have 12 more weeks’ leave available, totaling 24 weeks. Under the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, however, no more than 12 weeks of that leave could be taken as Expanded FMLA leave.

Employers should, as always, make and maintain good records concerning employee use of various leaves of absence and separately calculate the use by each employee of each type of leave, noting when they run concurrently and when, for one reason or another, they run separately. If during 2020 an employer believes that an employee is running out of any type of state or federal mandated leave, it makes sense to discuss the particulars of the situation with experienced labor and employment counsel.

[View source.]

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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