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A Rapid Roll Call: An Update on Leave Laws
Legislation across the country started coming fast and furious in March in response to COVID-19. The federal government and multiple state and local governments crafted new laws or updated existing ones to give employees not only financial relief, but job protection.
"The laws in their various forms were designed to protect the individual by giving them a continued source of income, and also protect the workplace and society at large from threats of COVID-19 contagion," says Janice Malcolm-Beeker, assistant general counsel for Group Benefits at The Hartford.
Many of these paid leaves are now required in some states for the first time. Some are temporary and others may be here to stay. Employers and human resource leaders had their hands full trying to sort out the new regulations, and in some cases, shifting their models as they did their best to care for their employees and stay compliant with health and regulatory guidelines.
"The complexities of paid leave aren't limited to COVID-19," she explains. With years of compliance experience in the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), disability insurance leave administration and employer-funded health plans, Malcolm-Beeker is part of a busy team at The Hartford that helps employers understand and adapt to the rapidly evolving leave law landscape, including new laws related to COVID-19.
By far, the broadest piece of legislation was the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which made temporary changes to the FMLA. Since its inception in 1993, the FMLA guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave for personal illness or family care reasons. The FFCRA, which took effect April 1, requires businesses with fewer than 500 workers to provide employees up to two weeks of paid sick leave, including certain leave to care for others, and up to 10 additional weeks of paid leave to employees unable to work because their child's school or childcare center was closed due to COVID-19 concerns. Employer costs are offset by refundable tax credits.
Several other jurisdictions adopted similar laws that extended benefits to businesses with more than 500 workers to make up for what the federal law didn't cover. New York, for example, required most employers to provide paid sick leave for two weeks. It also required all private employers, regardless of size, to provide emergency paid family leave to employees not working because their child is under quarantine or isolation. New Jersey expanded its laws to give more people access to paid family leave and disability benefits.
The FFCRA is due to sunset Dec. 31, 2020, but the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases leads some to speculate that it, and perhaps other laws, may be extended. Additionally, a recent study from health policy researcher Health Affairs, indicated that the FFCRA may have helped flatten the COVID-19 curve.1
"The pandemic is quite ferocious. As numbers tick up we're seeing some of those deadlines extended in various states and cities," Malcolm-Beeker explains.
The pandemic has raised employer awareness of and experience with paid family leave benefits. After COVID-19 put a pause on many state legislatures this year, some states may resume efforts in 2021 or 2022 to adopt permanent PFML programs. In fact, Colorado voters this past Election Day, overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative that would begin the process of creating a PFML program over the coming years. Several states with PFML programs give employers the option of using plans from the private insurance industry for their employees.
Insurance companies, and particularly disability insurers, have decades of experience coordinating and administering income protection plans and return-to-work support for employees when health issues lead to extended absences from work. They are strong partners to have at a time when COVID-19 has made leave laws – and life in general – more challenging.
"Paid leaves in general are incredibly complex," she says. "The insurance industry is well positioned to help employers navigate the changing landscape."