As we “March” past our first full pandemic year, hope for a return to a semi-regular workplace is springing up like Texas bluebonnets. But to make that happen, employers are scrambling to keep up with the latest Covid-19 employment laws, guidance, and assistance. And keeping up isn’t only crucial for compliance. Studies are finding that employees are back on the move. Over half are planning on getting a new job this year, up from 35% last year.
You can expect the ground to keep shifting on employment regulations throughout the year. We’re scheduling our annual Employment Law Roundup with Amy Beckstead of Beckstead Terry PLLC to catch you up this summer (details coming shortly). In the meantime, here’s a roundup of resources and changes that just happened (or might still happen), as well as COVID-19-related issues that could affect your workplace policies in the coming months:
COBRA Continuation Coverage:
The federal government will now subsidize 100% of premiums for continued coverage for eligible COBRA recipients through September 2021. Employers should watch closely for further guidance to avoid many mistakes made when a similar provision passed in 2009, says SHRM. Areas that could be tricky include changing deadlines, notification requirements, and eligibility once the individual can receive coverage under another group health plan or Medicare. SHRM offers more information here.
COVID-19-Related Paid Sick Leave:
More big news from the recently passed American Rescue Plan (aka, the third stimulus package) is that, in the end, it does not mandate new paid leave for employee absences for COVID-19 reasons, including time off to get vaccinated or to recover from vaccination side effects. However, employers who choose to give paid time off to employees for these reasons can receive tax credit for a bit longer. Learn more here.
The American Rescue Plan includes several other elements for employers to note, depending on your situation. There are additional funding and tax breaks for certain businesses, extended employer retention credit, expanded PPP2, withdrawal liability changes for multiemployer union pensions, and revisions to unemployment benefits. Continue to work with accounting, tax, and legal experts to be sure you’re taking every necessary step. Here are a few areas to check on.
Business Travel and Vacations:
Now that business and personal travel alike are picking back up, what’s your evolving stance on testing, quarantining and other related issues? SHRM offers this helpful guide on updating travel policies to address areas like:
- Continuing to minimize nonessential travel, such as to “hot spots” designated by the CDC.
- Testing and quarantining protocols for those who do travel, either for work or personal.
- Ways to monitor off-duty conduct legally (including continuing to ask employees questions about their health and travel).
Per Beckstead, “employers should continue to monitor federal, state, and local guidance for recommended workplace safety protocols, including new COVID-19 OSHA regulations that were a campaign pledge of President Biden.” OSHA has already released guidance in January on “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of Covid-19 in the Workplace” and just launched a National Emphasis Program in March focusing OSHA enforcement action on high-risk workers.
Vaccinations for all:
COVID-19 vaccines will soon be available to all adults. But that doesn’t mean all adults will choose to receive one. Can you require it? We offered advice to workers back in February on the subject, and the news hasn’t changed much (yet). The bottom line is that while employers can mandate it, there are ways for certain employees to evade it legally with EEOC backing. Find resources on the matter here.
Work from home versus a return to work:
How flexible are you about employees returning to the workplace after working from home? You’re likely facing that question right, now and it’s essential to understand that some employees who had no problem working onsite before may be facing other circumstances now. Consider these sample scenarios (and follow each link for guidance):
- They may be scared to return.
- They may still be transitioning their kids back to school.
- They may have moved since the lockdown started.
- They may be suddenly caring for their aging parents.
- They may be more productive at home and simply want to stay there.
- They may be a COVID-19 “long-hauler” suffering from months of symptoms.
Oh, so much more:
Bills are swirling Congress right now that can affect any number of work policies beyond those related to COVID-19. Take the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, for example. The bill is meant to fill the gap in providing pregnant workers reasonable accommodations. A final rule on a new independent contractor test and another on joint employers may be withdrawn for now. And then there’s the usual overtime, paid sick leave, discrimination, and other issues that are re-examined every time there’s a shift in federal partisan power.
“Unfortunately, some helpful U.S. Department of Labor opinion letters that provided needed clarity on issues ranging from tip pools to independent contractors are now withdrawn,” indicates Beckstead. “Employers should expect these efforts to continue, turning back more employer-friendly opinions and regulations implemented by the DOL in the previous administration.”
A return to work-as-usual sounds like a dream, but it will take extreme effort to get there. We want to know what’s on your mind as these issues evolve. Do you have questions? Concerns? Let us know and we’ll do our best to include them in the upcoming roundtable.
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