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The COVID-19 outbreak is changing nearly everything about how we work and do business. And if changing work conditions weren’t enough for employees to deal with, they also have to navigate a host of new federal policies including temporarily expanded sick leave and FMLA family leave. But, they don’t have to do it alone. Employers can help their team members work more effectively while achieving a healthy work-life balance by setting clear leave policies.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act established Emergency Paid Sick Leave and drastically, albeit temporarily, expanded the scope of the Family Medical Leave Act. But it also left it up to employers to set the terms of how employees can use that leave. That means that employers must educate themselves on how their team members can take advantage of the leave to protect themselves and their families while staying productive, and then provide clear guidelines for their teams.

This can be particularly useful for employees who don’t want to take time off of work but have to take care of children who are now home from school or childcare. These employees are entitled to paid leave if they decide not to work. But they may not know how to take paid leave for time spent caring for their children while working part-time. That’s where employers can help employees navigate the situation so that they can work as much as possible while simultaneously taking care of their other obligations.

In this article, we’ll provide an overview of how employers can set flexible leave policies and help their team members navigate the new leave policies including:

  • Employees’ leave coverage under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act
  • How to expand the leave policies to help your team members work more effectively during the outbreak and as businesses begin returning to work

Employees’ Rights Under the Act

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act implemented several employee leave expansions that went into effect at the beginning of April. We wrote a full overview that you can read here, but here is a quick overview of what your employees are entitled to from the FFCRA if you have fewer than 500 employees:

  • 2 weeks full paid sick leave if they are unable to work due to COVID-19 illness, quarantined due to exposure, or are experiencing symptoms and waiting for a diagnosis
  • Paid sick leave is available to employees who are quarantined but not sick only if they cannot work remotely
  • 2 weeks of paid family leave at 2/3 pay if they need to care for an individual subjected to quarantine or need to take care of minors whose schools or childcare facilities are closed due to the virus
  • 10 weeks of extended family leave at 2/3 pay if employees need to take care of minors and have been with the company for at least 30 days

Notably, if your company has 49 or fewer employees, you can apply for a small business exemption. But unless you receive a small business exemption, you cannot prevent qualified employees from taking leave. Nor, given the current health crisis, should you aim to prevent employees from taking the leave they need. Your leave costs will likely be covered by tax credits under the new CARES Act. It’s often in your best interest to help your employees maximize their ability to leverage the leave policies, especially to discourage the spread of the virus amongst your workforce.

Expanding Leave Policies for More Effective Work

Under the FFCRA, employees may not be eligible for leave if they are healthy, do not have to care for minors, and can work remotely. While on the other end of the scale, employees who have to take care of minors may be eligible for a full 12 weeks of leave, paid at 2/3 their normal rate. However, many employees who do qualify for leave to take care of minors, but can work remotely, will not want to take three months away from their work. And many employees may be concerned about keeping some of that time in reserve, since no one knows how long the outbreak will last. That’s where employers can help their employees make the most of their paid leave while simultaneously minimizing the disruption to their business.

You have the right to force employees to either work full time or go on leave. But it is often in both of your best interests to work out an arrangement where employees with family obligations work as much as they can while taking leave when they cannot. And the FFCRA gives employers a lot of leeway in allowing employees to take sporadic or intermittent paid leave.

Employers can allow employees to take paid leave in increments anywhere from week-to-week, day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour. That means you could allow your team members to take paid leave to homeschool their children every other day while working full time on the other days. Or they can take a few hours of paid leave every day to take care of their family obligations and work for the rest of the work day. And this does not just apply to remote employees: you can allow employees who have to come into the workplace to work a partial schedule while taking paid leave on their days off.

It’s important to remember that employers are not obligated to provide this kind of flexibility. But it can often be in your best interest to work with employees to find the best arrangement for both parties. Not only will it allow you to retain key employees, on a partial basis, who would otherwise go on full-time leave, thus reducing the disruption to your business from COVID-19, but it can also have a lasting impact on employee relations. Employees will remember it if you work to help them juggle their work and non-work obligations, increasing loyalty and productivity in the long-term. On the other hand, they will also remember if you took an all-or-nothing approach that adhered to the bare minimum requirements of the FFCRA. It’s crucial to consider the optics of your approach to leave during COVID and as employees begin transitioning back to work.

To recap, you are allowed but not required under the FFCRA to let your team members take emergency paid sick leave or family medical leave:

  • On a day-by-day basis while working a partial schedule either remotely or in-person
  • On an hourly basis to allow for reduced hours per day, either around a shorter shift or to allow for breaks to care for family
  • On a weekly or monthly basis
  • At your discretion, within the limitations of the FFCRA (you can prevent employees from working until they come back from leave but you cannot prevent them from taking continuous leave while they qualify for it)

You should decide which of these arrangements, if any, will work for your business and then set a clear leave policy. Then, inform your entire staff of that policy and work with each employee to help them set up the arrangement that works best for them, within the limits set in your policy. Clarity and flexibility will help your business run smoothly and help your employees balance their work with their other obligations.

Key Takeaways

With the COVID-19 outbreak continuing to disrupt every part of life and business as we know it, we can all benefit from working together to find solutions. The FFCRA requires that employers offer 2-12 weeks of paid leave for qualifying employees at either full or 2/3 pay and you should take responsibility for that obligation. If you create flexible leave policies that enable employees to work as much as they can while taking only as much leave as they need, you can minimize disruptions to your business. Setting clear and flexible leave policies and helping employees take advantage of those policies is truly a win-win strategy. Just remember that:

  • Healthy employees who do not need to care for minors or sick family members may not be eligible for any expanded leave and can be required to work full time if they can work remotely
  • Employers are allowed to decide whether and how their employees can take intermittent sick or family medical leave
  • If they chose to, employers can let their employees take their expanded leave on an hourly, daily, or weekly basis

For more on the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act and running a business during the COVID-19 outbreak, check out Launchways’ comprehensive resources on our COVID-19 Emergency Resource Center.

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