American Rescue Plan Act Extends and Expands Voluntary Employer-Provided FFCRA Leaves

Under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA), employers who opt to continue paid leaves originally required under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) can provide a greater amount of paid leave for a broader range of reasons and still receive tax credits to cover 100% of costs related to those leaves.

FFCRA originally required employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide employees with 2 weeks of Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) and up to 12 weeks Emergency Family and Medical Leave (EFML) (if employees satisfied one of the reasons set forth under FFCRA. For a complete review of FFCRA leaves and requirements, see Lake Effect's prior blogs on this topic. These mandatory leaves expired December 31, 2020. The stimulus bill passed on December 22, 2020, permitted employers to voluntarily allow employees to use any remaining EPSL or EFML by March 31, 2021 and still receive the related tax credits.

The ARPA further extends and expands original FFCRA leave allowances and related employer tax credit provisions as follows:

  • Time period extended: Covered employers can continue to provide employees with EPSL and EFML through September 30, 2021 and receive tax credits to cover 100% of costs associated with such leaves. Covered employers can decide to offer both EPSL and EFML, only one of them, or neither.
  • Additional 10 days of EPSL: Covered employers may provide employees with an additional 10 days of EPSL between April 1, 2021 and September 30, 2021 and receive tax credits to cover 100% of related costs.
  • New reasons for EPSL: In addition to the previous qualifying reasons set forth in FFCRA, employers may provide employees EPSL for time spent awaiting COVID-19 test results, obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine, or recovering from “any injury, disability, illness or condition related to such” vaccine. Pay for these new leave reasons will be at 100% (up to a max of $511/day or $5,110 for 10 days).
  • Additional 12 weeks of EFML: Covered employers may provide employees with an additional 12 weeks of EFML (all at 2/3 pay, up to a maximum of $12,000) between April 1, 2021 and September 30, 2021. Note this is an increase from 10 to 12 weeks of paid leave, and from $10,000 to $12,000 in maximum pay per employee.
  • New reasons for EFML: Employers may provide employees EFML for all the qualifying reasons permitted for use of EPSL, including time spent awaiting COVID-19 test results, obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine, or recovering from the effects of such vaccine.
  • New non-discrimination requirement: Employers will not receive tax credits for costs associated with voluntary EPSL or EFML if it discriminates in favor of highly compensated employees, full-time employees, or longer-tenured employees in providing leaves.

We continue to monitor developments and guidance relating to the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021  and other Biden Administration efforts to address the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. We will provide you with employment-related updates on these topics as they arise.

President Biden Signs COVID-19 Emergency Relief Bill

On March 11, President Biden signed The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 emergency relief bill, into law. This new legislation aims to help individuals, businesses, and organizations across the country offset the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key employer-related provisions of the relief package include:

  • Unemployment benefits:
    • Extends the existing federal supplement of $300 in weekly unemployment benefits for initial claims related to the public health emergency through September 6, 2021 (previously set to expire in mid-March).
    • Waives federal income taxes on the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits received in 2020 for households earning under $150,000.
  • Payroll tax credits for FFCRA leaves extended: guarantees that employers who continue to provide paid sick and family leaves in accordance with prior FFCRA requirements will continue to receive payroll tax credits through September 2021. Note that employers are no longer required to provide FFCRA paid leaves, but the continuing tax credits provide an incentive for them to do so.
    • Employers who want to take advantage of these tax credits must follow the FFCRA leave requirements set forth in the original Act. See our prior blogs on this issue and consult with experienced HR and legal advisors to ensure FFCRA compliance and receipt of the tax credits.
  • Pandemic response:
    • Funds tens of billions of dollars for coronavirus testing and contact tracing.
    • Increases the size of the public health workforce.
    • Supports vaccine distribution and supply chains.
  • Employee Retention Tax Credit (ERTC):
    • Expands the ERTC for start-up companies and other businesses hit by the pandemic.
    • As modified by the Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Tax Relief Act (the Relief Act), the ERTC provides a tax credit equal to 70% of the “qualified wages” paid to an employee on or after 1/1/21 until 6/30/21 up to $10,000 per calendar quarter.
    • “Eligible employers” include those that (1) were required to fully or partially suspend operations because of COVID; OR (2) experienced at least a 20% decline in gross receipts in any 2020 calendar quarter as compared to the same calendar quarter of 2019.
  • COBRA:
    • Increases the value of the federal COBRA health insurance subsidy from 85% to 100%.
    • This subsidy covers the cost of COBRA for eligible employees to continue their employer-sponsored coverage post-employment, from April 1 through September 2021.
      • This applies to employees who have lost a job or had their hours cut.
      • This does not apply to employees who qualify for new, employer-based health insurance with a new employer or to employees who voluntarily resign from employment.
  • Dependent Care FSA:
    • Permits employees to contribute $10,500 into a dependent care account, instead of the normal $5,000 per family. This may only be done if the employer agrees to modify their dependent care plan. This increase is currently only for 2021.

The following provisions of the relief package are not employment-related, but may be relevant to your employees or community:

  • Stimulus checks:
    • Provides $1,400 in new stimulus checks.
    • Individuals earning up to $75,000 per year and couples earning up to $150,000 per year will receive the full $1,400-per-person benefit, including dependents who may not have been eligible previously.
    • Stimulus payments taper off for individuals earning up to a cap of $80,000 and couples earning up to a cap of $160,000.
  • Child tax credit: Expands program to provide parents with tax credit of $3,000 per year for each child ages 6 to 17, and $3,600 for each child under age 6.
    • Low-income households that are currently ineligible or receive only a portion of the credit would now receive the full value of the credit.
    • Starting in July 2021, the federal government will send advance payments of the credit to Americans in “periodic” installments, akin to a guaranteed income for families with children. This would amount to half of the annual credit, with the remainder claimed as part of the parent’s 2021 tax return.
    • This will likely last one year.
  • Earned-income tax credit: Increases the maximum credit amount for childless households to $1,502 ($543 increase). Expands the age range to begin at 19 and eliminates the upper age limit.
  • Aid to state and local governments: Designates $350 billion for states, cities, tribal governments, and U.S. territories.
  • FEMA Emergency Food and Shelter Program: Provides $510 million for the program to support homeless services providers for overnight shelter, meals, one month’s rent and mortgage assistance and one month’s utility payments.
  • Education related: Makes all coronavirus-related student loan relief tax-free. Allocates $1.25 billion for summer enrichment, $1.25 billion for after-school programs, and $3 billion for education technology.
  • Infrastructure: Adds a $10 billion infrastructure program to help local governments continue crucial capital projects.
  • Transportation: Increases Amtrak relief funding by $200 million.
  • ACA: Expands tax credits and premium subsidies for people who enroll in coverage through the ACA exchanges. Extends certain Medicaid coverage. Provides incentives to states who have not yet expanded their Medicaid programs.
  • Health Care: Provides an additional $8.5 billion for the Provider Relief Program to assist rural health care providers.

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of all provisions included in the relief law. We encourage you to consult with your business and tax advisors about the entire stimulus package and its impact on your organization and employees.

For additional information and discussion of prior relief packages, please see Lake Effect’s prior blogs on those topics. We will continue to closely monitor all developments in this area and provide you with important updates.

New Law Limits COVID-19 Civil Liability For Wisconsin Employers

Governor Evers signed 2021 Wisconsin Act 4 into law on February 26, 2021, providing Wisconsin employers with broad protection from civil law claims relating to COVID-19. Effective March 1, 2020, Wisconsin businesses, schools, and non-profit organizations are immune from civil liability for the death of or injury to any individual or damages caused by an act or omission resulting in or relating to exposure to COVID-19. The law applies retroactively to all claims arising on or after March 1, 2020, except it will not apply to lawsuits actually filed before March 1, 2020. Furthermore, immunity under the law will not apply to an entity whose actions or omissions involve reckless or wanton conduct or intentional misconduct.

2021 Wisconsin Act 4 provides employers substantial protection from civil lawsuits brought by employees, contractors, customers, students, vendors, and family members of these individuals. Despite the new protections, Wisconsin employers should continue to closely monitor and follow guidance from local, state, and federal public health officials on COVID-19 safety and mitigation measures. Failure to do so could constitute evidence of reckless, wanton, or intentional misconduct, which would negate the civil immunity afforded under the Act 4. Such a failure could also trigger claims under OSHA’s general duty clause for failure to provide employees a work environment free from recognized hazards. Employers should also note that employees can continue to seek remedies under applicable workers’ compensation statutes.

Learning To Build A Stronger Teams In A Virtual World

Their positive attitudes carry an edge of lighthearted humor that paints the HR field with a ‘can do’ attitude for tackling challenges and employment law changes.

Andrea Conrad, Numbers 4 Nonprofits Inc

Many of us are starting to think about what our workspaces will look like when we are able to return more consistently or completely to the workplace. These options include returning full time to the office, continuing to work remotely, or a blend of the two.  No matter which option your organization chooses for its new normal, leaders will need to focus time on retaining talent by nurturing workplace culture and offering professional development opportunities to team members.

As you nurture your workplace culture, consider surveying your team members to learn what helped them be successful in their work and connect with their coworkers while working remotely. When considering professional development, evaluate your current practices and how they can be adjusted to fit and support your new work environment. If your team members will be working virtually – fully or partly – consider how you can offer them virtual coaching and professional development. Employees have proven that they can work, grow, and learn successfully in a virtual world.

Life-long learning is important to all of us at Lake Effect, so we have adapted our in-person workshops to engage with a virtual audience. We love training in-person, but we have found that we also connect, engage, and share knowledge as effectively over Zoom or Microsoft Teams. We realize that Zoom fatigue is real, so we have shortened our workshops to 1-2 hour sessions. To continue to support our clients, partners, and their employees, we offer a variety of in-person and virtual workshops in the following areas:

  • Aligning Strategic Plan & HR
  • Coaching
  • Communication
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Crisis Management
  • Culture Building
  • Employee Development
  • Legal Compliance
  • HR Compliance
  • Management Training
  • Performance Management
  • Respectful Workplace
  • Team Engagement

Dane County Public Health Emergency Order #14

Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) has issued a new public health order, Emergency Order #14, effective March 10, 2021. The new order includes significant changes to the indoor and outdoor capacity limits for gatherings, restaurants, taverns, and sporting events. The order also modifies the protective measure policy required for schools. The primary changes are summarized below and are outlined in PHMDC’s summary of Emergency Order #14.

Gatherings

  • As a reminder, gatherings include exercise classes, meetings, conferences, trainings, sporting events, parties, and other planned events.
  • Indoor gatherings with food or drink are permitted with up to 150 individuals. Indoor gatherings without food or drink are permitted with up to 350 individuals.
  • Outdoor gatherings with or without food or drink are permitted with up to 500 individuals.
  • The capacity limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings do not include employees.
  • Individuals must maintain 6 feet physical distancing at indoor and outdoor gatherings.

Sports

  • All sports must follow the gathering limitations outlined above.

Indoor Capacity Limits at Restaurants and Taverns

  • Indoor capacity at restaurants and other dining facilities is increased to 50% of approved seating capacity.
  • Indoor capacity at taverns is increased to 25% of approved seating capacity.
  • Tables and chairs must still be spaced so that 6 feet physical distancing can be maintained between customers who are not members of the same household.

Mandatory School Policies

  • Schools may need to modify their required protective measure policy and procedure. Under the new order, the protective measure policy and procedure must:
    • Ensure employees are provided with and wear face coverings as required under the general face coverings requirements in the emergency order.
    • Ensure employees maintain 6 feet distancing at all times to the extent possible.
    • When 6 feet distancing is not possible for students, ensure that students and employee groupings are as static as possible. Mixing between groups must be restricted as much as possible.
    • Commons areas such as cafeterias, auditoriums, and gyms can be used as classrooms, to provide food, as childcare and youth settings, and for government functions. Student grouping should be in distinct spaces. Student groupings may not mix with other student groupings.
  • Schools must document employee receipt, acknowledgment, or training on any revised protective measure policy.
  • The requirements for the hygiene policy and procedure and the cleaning policy and procedure have not changed.

The other requirements from previous PHMDC emergency orders, including face coverings, remain in place. You can find Lake Effect’s summaries of the previous orders here.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about how local and state public health orders apply to employers. We continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please keep watching our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

Dane County Public Health Emergency Order #13

Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC) has issued a new public health order, Emergency Order #13. The new order, effective February 10, 2021, includes significant changes to the face covering requirements, indoor and outdoor capacity limits, and permitted sports activities. The primary changes are summarized below and are outlined in PHMDC’s comparison of Emergency Orders #12 and #13.

Face Coverings

  • Face coverings must be secured with ties, ear loops, or elastic bands that go behind the head and fit snuggly against the side of the face. Cloth face masks must be made with two or more layers of tightly woven fabric. PHMDC suggests holding up the face mask to a light. If light does not pass through, the fabric is sufficiently “tightly woven.” Bandanas, single layer neck gaiters, face shields, goggles, scarves, ski masks, balaclavas, shirt or sweater collars, and masks with slits, exhalation valves, or punctures are not face coverings under the order.
    • The updated face covering requirements reflect guidance from the CDC.
  • In addition to settings included in previous orders, face coverings are also required outdoors while actively participating in sports and/or while attending an outdoor gathering of more than 50 individuals.
    • Face coverings are not required outdoors while participating in a sport if it is played individually or with six feet physical distancing at all times.

Gatherings

  • PHMDC has replaced the term “mass gatherings” with “gatherings.
  • The definition of gatherings has not changed. As a reminder, it includes meetings, conferences, exercise classes, trainings, sporting events, parties, and other planned events.
  • Indoor gatherings with food or drink are permitted with up to 25 individuals. Indoor gatherings without food or drink are permitted with up to 50 individuals.
  • Outdoor gatherings with food or drink are permitted with up to 100 individuals. Outdoor gatherings without food or drink are permitted with up to 150 individuals.
  • The capacity limits for indoor and outdoor gatherings do not include employees or individuals living in the same household.
  • Individuals must maintain 6 feet physical distancing.

Child Care

  • Childcare centers and 4K are no longer limited to 15 children per classroom or group. All other requirements remain in place, including 6 feet physical distancing to the greatest extent possible for children 5 years and older.

Youth Settings

  • Youth classes and groups (i.e., any group or class that does not constitute childcare or 4K) are subject to the indoor and outdoor gathering limits outlined above. All other requirements from the previous emergency order remain in place, including 6 feet physical distancing to the greatest extent possible.

Sports

  • All individuals – athletes, coaches, referees, spectators, and others – not actively participating in the sport must maintain 6 feet physical distancing at all times.
  • Proper face coverings must be worn in compliance with the face covering requirements outlined above.
  • Sports that can maintain physical distancing at all times must follow the indoor and outdoor gathering limits outlined above. All other sports are limited to 25 individuals indoors and 100 individuals outdoors. These limits do not include employees.
  • All sports’ organizing entities must:
    • develop and implement hygiene, cleaning, and protective measure policies, with specific provisions included in the emergency order (see Section 4.d. of the order);
    • document receipt, acknowledgment, or training on the policies;
    • implement PHMDC’s Sports Action Plan; and
    • ensure all individuals participating in the sports activity are aware of the above policies and action plan.

The other requirements from previous PHMDC emergency orders remain in place. You can find Lake Effect’s summaries of the previous orders here.

Lake Effect is here to answer your questions about how local and state public health orders apply to employers. We continue to monitor important legal and HR developments, as well as COVID-related updates from federal, state, and local authorities. Please keep watching our blogs and emails for these important updates, as well as discussions of how compliance meets culture. To dive into these issues, contact us at info@le-hrlaw.com or 1-844-333-5253.

Governor Evers Extends Statewide Public Health Emergency and Mask Mandate

On February 4, 2021, the Wisconsin Legislature struck down the existing statewide mask mandate and public health emergency. In response, Governor Tony Evers issued Executive Order #105, which declares a new state of emergency and public health emergency for 60 days or until it is revoked or overturned. Governor Evers also issued a new Emergency Order #1 implementing once again a statewide mask mandate until March 20, 2021. This emergency order maintains the same face mask requirements that were included in the previous mandates. Lake Effect’s summary of the requirements can be found here. The Governor’s new Emergency Order #1 supersedes any less restrictive local order.

OSHA Recommends Measures to Reduce Workplace Spread of COVID-19

Responding to a directive from the Biden administration, OSHA posted new guidance on January 29, 2021 to help non-healthcare employers identify COVID-19 risks and implement effective measures to minimize its spread in the workplace. The guidance is not a standard or regulation, and it creates no new legal obligations. It is advisory in nature, containing recommendations and detailed descriptions of existing safety and health regulations. However, it will likely be one yardstick used to measure compliance with OSHA’s “General Duty Clause,” which requires employers to provide workers with a workplace free from recognized hazards that cause or are likely to cause death or serious harm.

The new guidance specifies that implementing a workplace COVID-19 prevention program is the most effective way to reduce its spread at work. An effective program includes such elements as:

  • Assigning a workplace coordinator responsible for COVID-19 issues.
  • Identifying where and how employees might be exposed at work.
  • Identifying a combination of measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 at work including separating and sending home potentially infected employees, implementing physical distancing and barriers, requiring face coverings, improving ventilation, and using applicable PPE, as well as good hygiene and cleaning/disinfection practices.
  • Providing reasonable accommodations or modifications to workers at higher risk of severe illness.
  • Effectively communicating with employees about COVID-19 in a language they understand and providing them with guidance on screening and testing.
  • Educating and training employees on COVID-19 policies and procedures.
  • Minimizing the negative impact of quarantine and isolation on workers by allowing telework or work at alternative locations where possible.
  • Recording and reporting COVID-19 infections and deaths consistent with applicable OSHA requirements. See Lake Effect’s blogs on this issue.
  • Establishing a process for employees to anonymously express concerns about COVID-19 hazards and ensuring that they are not discriminated or retaliated against in any way.
  • Making COVID-19 vaccines available to employees and requiring all employees to follow preventive practices, regardless of whether they are vaccinated.  See Lake Effect’s blog on this issue.

This is not an exhaustive list of OSHA’s new recommendations, and this new guidance contains detailed information about each aspect of an effective workplace COVID-19 prevention program. Employers should work closely with legal counsel to understand all requirements and implement a COVID-19 workplace prevention program consistent with this new OSHA guidance. Lake Effect is here to help you through this process and ensure that you are taking all possible steps to provide a workplace free from the recognized hazards created by the COVID-19.

Biden Administration Impact on the Workplace

Just one week into his administration, President Biden has signaled that he will take a fresh look at current issues affecting American workers and workplaces. His recent executive orders and memoranda include the following actions:

  • Halt Final Rules governing tip pools and independent contractors: This Executive memorandum stays pending final rules that have been published but which had not yet taken effect to allow the Biden Administration to review their impact. This also directs that any rules which had been sent to the Federal Register but had not yet been published must be immediately withdrawn for review. This results in a stay of the Independent Contract Final Rule and the new Tip Pooling Rule. As a result, the Department of Labor has withdrawn 3 opinion letters related to those rules. See Lake Effect’s previous blogs on the Independent Contractor Final Rule, the Tip Pooling Final Rule, and two of the tip pool opinion letters.
  • Expand COVID-related unemployment benefits: This Executive Order permits employees who refuse work based on COVID health-related concerns to receive unemployment benefits.
  • Promote racial equity: This Executive Order directs the Biden administration to conduct equity assessments of its agencies and reallocate resources to “advanc[e] equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”
  • Reaffirm gender equity: This Executive Order expands protections against discrimination based on sex in federal agencies to explicitly include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. This does not have a direct impact on private employers, but does follow the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia (see Lake Effect’s blog here).
  • Enhance COVID-related workplace safety: This Executive Order requires administrative agencies to take “swift action to reduce the risk that workers may contract COVID-19 in the workplace.” This will most likely result in action from OSHA setting forth “science-based guidance to help keep workers safe from COVID-19 exposure, including with respect to mask-wearing; partnering with State and local governments to better protect public employees; enforcing worker health and safety requirements; and pushing for additional resources to help employers protect employees.”

The attorneys and HR professionals at Lake Effect will continue to closely monitor the Biden administration’s executive actions, legislative developments, and their impact on workplaces.

New CDC Guidance Requires Informed Consent for Workplace COVID-19 Testing

On January 21, 2021, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued new guidance for non-healthcare employers who conduct workplace COVID-19 testing. While the CDC previously confirmed that workplace testing is permissible as part of a comprehensive approach to reducing virus transmission, the new guidance clarifies that it should not be conducted without employees’ informed consent. According to the CDC, “informed consent requires disclosure, understanding, and free choice, and is necessary for an employee to act independently and make choices according to their values, goals, and preferences.”

According to the CDC, employers should adopt at least the following measures to promote free decision-making and informed consent to COVID-19 testing in the workplace:

  • Implement safeguards to protect employee privacy and confidentiality.
  • Provide complete and understandable information about how a testing program may impact employees’ lives, such as whether a positive test result or refusal to participate in testing may mean exclusion from work for any period of time.
  • Explain parts of the testing program that would be particularly important to employees as they decide whether to participate (i.e., key reasons that may guide their decision).
  • Inform employees about the testing program in their preferred languages using clear, non-technical terms. Solicit employee input on the readability of the information.
  • Train supervisors and managers on their roles and responsibilities regarding testing and encourage them to avoid pressuring employees to participate in testing.
  • Consider the consent process as an active information-sharing process between the employer and the employee. Throughout the process, encourage and answer employees’ questions, facilitate their understanding, and promote their free choice.

In addition, employers must ensure the disclosures listed below are made to employees:

  • The manufacturer and name of the test.
  • The type of test and its purpose.
  • How the test will be performed.
  • The known and potential risks of harm, discomforts, and benefits of the test.
  • What it means to have a positive or negative test result, including test reliability and limitations and any public health guidance triggered by a particular result.

Many of these are contained in the FDA’s emergency use authorization patient fact sheet for each approved COVID-19 test (scroll down on the linked page to find the test-specific fact sheet), which must be provided to any party receiving that test.

Employers who conduct workplace COVID-19 testing must develop plans to address a host of other testing-related topics and questions, including:

  • Their reasons for testing, frequency of testing, and consequences to employees of testing/non-testing.
  • Locations, scheduling, procedures, and payment for testing.
  • Communication and interpretation of test results, applicable leaves and/or benefit policies.
  • Personal information needed to test and privacy of results.
  • Internal resources for employees who need additional information, assistance, treatment after test procedure.

Given the CDC’s detailed requirements for informed consent and disclosures relating to workplace-based COVID-19 testing, employers in non-healthcare settings should proceed cautiously when considering the implementation of testing programs or protocols. Rather than conduct workplace testing, some employers may be well-advised to minimize administrative burdens and legal exposure by strongly encouraging employees to undergo frequent COVID-19 testing administered by reliable, unrelated third parties.

Lake Effect HR & Law, LLC
(844) 333-5253 (LAKE)
info@le-hrlaw.com

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