DOL Revises COVID-19 Sick Leave and Family and Medical Leave Rules Following Court Ruling

by Lukas Clary
The Labor & Employment Law Blog

On September 11, 2020, the United States Department of Labor issued revised regulations governing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). The regulations implement the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA) and Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFMLEA) provisions of the FFCRA. The revised regulations were issued to address a decision from a federal court in New York that invalidated previous regulations concerning whether work must otherwise be available to employees seeking to use leave under EPSLA and EFMLEA and whether an employer must consent to intermittent leave. The revised regulations also clarify and narrow the definition of “health care provider” under the FFCRA and address medical documentation requirements employees must meet to be eligible to take leave.

Refresher on FFCRA

In March 2020, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress enacted the FFCRA. We initially blogged about the FFCRA here. In short, the FFCRA requires employers with 500 or fewer employees to offer up to 2 weeks of EPSLA leave to employees who miss work for qualifying reasons relating to the pandemic. Where the need to miss work results from the employee’s need to stay home with a child whose school or childcare facility is closed due to the pandemic, employees may take up to 12 weeks of paid and unpaid leave under EFMLEA. The first two weeks of EFMLEA leave are unpaid, but employees seeking pay could  choose to use EPSLA leave or any other paid leave otherwise available to the employee such as state law sick leave or any accrued paid vacation benefits. The last 10 weeks of EFMLEA leave are paid. Employers may receive a tax credit for any leave paid out under the FFCRA. Unless extended, the FFCRA is set to expire at the end of 2020.

New York Opinion Invalidates Certain FFCRA Regulations

Last month, in response to a challenge brought by the New York Attorney General, a federal court struck down four provisions of the FFCRA’s prior regulations.  Specifically, the court struck down regulations requiring work to be otherwise available to employees before they can qualify for EPSLA or EFMLEA, requiring employees to obtain employer approval before taking intermittent leave, and requiring employees to provide medical documentation regarding the reasons for leave “prior to” taking the leave. Finally, the court struck down as overbroad the FFCRA’s definition of “health care provider” as used to determine those health care providers who were ineligible for the leave.

The Revised Regulations

Following the New York ruling, the DOL was widely expected to issue revised regulations addressing the items the court raised. The September 11, 2020 DOL release does just that. According to the DOL’s news release, found here, the revisions 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.

Work Availability Requirement

The DOL’s position that work must be available to an employee seeking to take leave reflects a doubling down on their regulation that the court struck down. Recognizing the court’s opinion that the prior regulation lacked sufficient analysis of why work must be available to the employee, the DOL provided that analysis. The DOL clarified that when work is unavailable due to circumstances other than a FFCRA-qualifying reason, such as when an employee is furloughed or the business is temporarily shut down, there is no work available from which an employee can take leave.

The DOL further explained that “leave is most simply and clearly understood as an authorized absence from work; if an employee is not expected or required to work, he or she is not taking leave.” In those circumstances, an employee’s recourse may instead be to file for unemployment insurance benefits. The revised regulation does, however, make clear that employers cannot withhold work in order to avoid paying EFMLEA or EPSLA. Instead, work must be unavailable for legitimate business reasons.

Employer Consent to Intermittent Leave

Just as with the work availability requirement, the New York court struck down the requirement that employees taking intermittent EPSLA or EFMLEA leave must obtain employer consent because, according to the court, the DOL’s initial rule lacked sufficient analysis and explanation for the requirement. Again, the DOL doubled down on its prior rule while providing much more detailed reasoning for it. The DOL noted that the FMLA provides for intermittent leave only for qualifying reasons, such as medical necessity and employer/employee agreement. Because the FFCRA is silent on employees’ ability to take intermittent leave, and because the “medical necessity” basis for leave under the FMLA does not fit within the EFMLEA framework, the DOL concluded that it had discretion to balance employees’ need for leave with employers’ need to avoid business disruptions. It balanced those competing interests by requiring employees to obtain employer consent to take intermittent leave.

Narrowed Definition of Health Care Provider under Exemption

The FFCRA exempts employers from offering EFMLEA or EPSLA to certain health care providers. The previous definition, which the New York court struck down as too broad, included “anyone employed at” any location “where medical services are provided.” This could have included those workers at the facilities who did not even provide healthcare services, such as IT staff, human resources, or kitchen workers. Under the revised rule, “[a] person is not a health care provider merely because his or her employer provides health care services or because he or she provides a service that affects the provision of health care services.” Rather, the employee must meet the definition of healthcare provider under the FMLA (essentially, those workers who directly provide the healthcare services), or those 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 and, if not provided, would adversely impact patient care.”

Notice and Documentation Requirements

Under the prior rules, struck down by the New York court, employees were required to provide employers with notice of the need for FFCRA leave, and documentation supporting the need for leave, prior to being eligible. Under the revised regulation, employees are now only required to provide notice and documentation “as soon as practicable.”  The DOL did note, however, that in the cases of employees needing leave due to a child’s school closure, the leave will almost always be foreseeable in advance and should therefore be provided prior to the leave being taken.

Takeaway for Employers

For now, employers can follow the new DOL regulations in administering FFCRA leave. That means employers are not obligated to provide EFMLEA or EPSLA leave to employees who are furloughed or are otherwise unable to work for reasons that do not relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. Employers may also decide whether to allow employees intermittent leave under the FFCRA. Such decisions, however, should be made for legitimate business reasons and applied consistently to avoid the risk of discrimination claims. Employers in the healthcare industry may utilize the updated definitions of healthcare provider in assessing whether employees are eligible for FFCRA leave. Finally, employers should not require employees to provide notice and documentation supporting their need for FFCRA leave any earlier than is practicable under the circumstances.

Employers should also watch for future developments around these regulations. First, it is not yet known whether they will be subjected to any further court challenges and, if so, what the outcome of those challenges will be. Employers should also monitor whether Congress elects to extend the FFCRA, with or without modifications, beyond its current expiration date of December 31, 2020. Employers with any uncertainty in these areas should work with their legal counsel to assure their practices and policies are compliant.