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The moment we have all been awaiting over the last several weeks has finally arrived. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has issued important regulations that clarify and revise who can qualify for emergency paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).

In this urgent update, we’ll cover the following:

  • What is the background behind this important announcement by the DOL
  • What specific clarifications and revisions were made
  • What this means for your business moving forward

What is the background behind this important FFCRA announcement?

In April, U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken issued a ruling that found the DOL had exceeded its authority by blocking workers from FFCRA leave when their employer didn’t have any work for them to perform.

The challenge to this aspect of the FFCRA was originally put forward by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who also challenged the DOL’s interpretation of the FFCRA’s exclusion for healthcare providers, the rule’s limits on intermittent leave, and certain documentation requirements outlined in the language of the act.

Since Judge Oetken’s ruling, many employers have been left without clear guidance when trying to implement the new, but extremely important, FFCRA.

Hopefully the DOL’s clarifying announcement will be a light in the dark for employers who are trying to juggle many aspects of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

What specific clarifications and revisions were made?

The revisions, which were specifically made to the regulations that implemented the paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave provisions of the FFCRA, do the following:

  • Reaffirm and provide additional explanation for the requirement that employees may take FFCRA leave only if work would otherwise be available to them.
  • Reaffirm and provide additional explanation for the requirement that an employee have employer approval to take FFCRA leave intermittently.
  • Revise the definition of “healthcare provider” to include only employees who meet the definition of that term under the Family and Medical Leave Act regulations or who are employed to provide diagnostic services, preventative services, treatment services or other services that are integrated with and necessary to the provision of patient care which, if not provided, would adversely impact patient care.
  • Clarify that employees must provide required documentation supporting their need for FFCRA leave to their employers as soon as practicable.
  • Correct an inconsistency regarding when employees may be required to provide notice of a need to take expanded family and medical leave to their employers.

To ensure we communicate this information to our readers accurately, the above bullet points were taken directly from the DOL’s announcement about these important revisions, which can be read in its entirety by clicking here.

What does this mean for your business moving forward?

Friday’s announcement reaffirms the DOL’s stance that leave under the FFCRA can only be taken if the employer actually has work for the employee to do. This is important, especially for businesses who have taken a hit during this pandemic. If an employer legitimately doesn’t have any work for the employee to do, they are allowed to reject the employee’s FFCRA leave request.

The DOL also remained firm in its original interpretation of intermittent, or periodic, leave under the FFCRA. Intermittent leave, according to this now clarified rule, is only allowed when the employee gets permission from their employer.

According to Friday’s announcement, “The Department believes the employer-approval condition for intermittent leave under its FMLA regulation is appropriate in the context of FFCRA intermittent leave for qualifying reasons that do not exacerbate risk of COVID-19 contagion. It is a longstanding principle of FMLA intermittent leave that such leave should, where foreseeable, avoid ‘unduly disrupting’ the employer’s operations.”

In addition to the previous two clarifications, the DOL revised the definition of “Health Care Provider” to mean, “employees who are health care providers…and other employees who are employed to provide diagnostic services, preventive services, treatment services, or other services that are integrated with and necessary to the provision of patient care.” This clarification was necessary because Judge Oetken had found that the agency’s previous definition was too broad and potentially excessively cut off workers from using FFCRA leave.

Employers in the health care industry should understand that this revised definition of “Health Care Provider,” – and the exclusion of health care providers in the first place – was done to, “provide a safety valve to ensure that critical health and safety services would not be understaffed during the pandemic.”

These revisions will officially take effect on Wednesday, September 16th. Keep in mind that the FFCRA will remain in place at least through the end of 2020. Assuming the pandemic has not ended by 2021, expect an expansion of the FFCRA to continue into next year.

Key Takeaways

Employers’ heads might be spinning after reading this announcement. This is important news that will have significant impacts on the workforce of many businesses and industries over the next few months. Employers should now feel that they have more leverage when it comes to dealing with employee FFCRA requests.

Here are the most important takeaways from this announcement:

  • If you legitimately don’t have enough work for your employees to do (which very well might be the case if your business has been suffering during the pandemic), then you can deny employee requests for FFCRA leave under this new clarification from the DOL.
  • Employees can only take intermittent leave if they have permission from their employer.
  • Healthcare workers should understand that they might be excluded from the FFCRA.
  • Employers should be aware that these revisions take effect as of Wednesday, September 16, 2020.
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