The COVID-19 pandemic poses a nearly unprecedented threat to the health of the American public. Before it abates, many people in the U.S. will develop symptoms of the virus or need to care for family members who develop symptoms. Employees may need to take time off from work to address their health or the health of their loved ones. To reduce the financial concerns of employees during this time, the federal government has enacted a law known as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). This law contains a combination of new provisions and extensions to pre-existing federal laws.
The FFCRA took effect in April 2020. Its provisions require insurers to cover testing and treatment for COVID-19. The law also provides subsidies to help employers pay health insurance premiums. It boosts funding for unemployment benefits programs and nutrition programs designed for certain vulnerable groups. However, its most notable provisions require certain employers to provide paid leave to employees in certain situations. The FFCRA originally expired on December 31, 2020, but the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 allowed employers to choose to continue to provide paid sick leave in exchange for tax credits. This provision has been extended through September 30, 2021 by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). Furthermore, ARPA prevents employers from discriminating against certain classes of employees; if an employer offers paid leave, it must offer it to all employees.
Paid Leave Under the FFCRA
The paid leave provisions of the FFCRA apply to employers with fewer than 500 employees, as well as federal, state, and local public agencies. These employers must provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to full-time employees who have contracted COVID-19, who are quarantined due to COVID-19, or who have symptoms of COVID-19 for which they are seeking medical treatment. This paid sick leave also is available to employees who need to care for a family member who has contracted COVID-19 or is quarantined because of it. Finally, it is available to employees who have a child under 18 who is staying at home because their school is closed during the COVID-19 outbreak. An employer may not require a worker who is using this leave to find a replacement to handle their job.
ARPA allows employees to qualify for paid leave due to vaccine appointments or complications from the vaccine. It also clarified that employees may qualify if they are seeking or awaiting a COVID-19 test result or diagnosis after exposure or employer request, regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms. ARPA resets the 80-hour limit on April 1, 2021.
Certain limits apply to this paid sick leave. The amount of pay is capped at $511 per day, and $5,110 in total, for employees who are sick or quarantined or who have symptoms. It is capped at $200 per day, and $2,000 in total, for employees who have a family member affected by COVID-19 or a child staying at home because their school is closed. (An employer can get a tax credit for these payments.) Employees could not carry over any hours of this leave to 2021.
Part-time employees receive more restricted benefits under the FFCRA. The maximum amount of paid sick leave that they can receive is equal to their average hours during a two-week period. For example, if a part-time employee works for 20 hours per week, they could receive a maximum of 40 hours of paid sick leave.
Self-employed individuals receive a separate benefit in the form of a tax credit. They can get a tax credit in the amount of $200 or their average daily income, whichever is lower, for each day that they cannot work due to one of the reasons listed above. A self-employed person can subtract this amount from their self-employment income in their next estimated tax filing.
Expansion of Existing Laws
The FFCRA also expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which is a pre-existing federal law that provides a right to leave in certain situations for employees of certain employers. The same types of employers that must provide 80 hours of paid sick leave also must provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to employees with a child at home because their school or day care has closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. A full-time employee will receive two-thirds of their regular pay for the number of hours that they would normally work, up to a maximum of $200 per day, and a maximum of $10,000 in total. ARPA increased this limit to $12,000.
To receive this paid leave, an employee needs to have worked for their employer for at least 30 days. (Under normal conditions, an employee needs to have worked for their employer for at least one year to qualify for FMLA leave.) An employer with fewer than 50 employees may be exempt if its business would be jeopardized by providing this leave.
Employees should be aware that the first 10 days of their FMLA leave may be unpaid. ARPA allows employers to choose to pay all 12 weeks. If the first 10 days are unpaid, employees may be able to use vacation days or paid sick leave under an employer’s policy to cover all or part of this time.
Beginning on April 1, 2021, FMLA leave may be taken for any reason for which an employee may take FFCRA paid sick leave.