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Employers grapple with federal sick leave

When the COVID-19 pandemic first reached New Mexico in March, employers had to tweak guidelines quickly and keep up with federal laws regarding when and how employees could take sick time.

Now, with COVID-19 cases spiking again, employers are preparing for an uptick in sick leave taken before expanded federal provisions expire at the end of the year.

“We just need to plan ahead for that,” said Gena Jones, assistant vice president of human relations for New Mexico State University.

In late March, with the virus spreading across the country, the federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to help address the social and economic impact of the virus.

The act – which covers certain public employers and private employers with fewer than 500 employees – provides full-time workers with up to 80 hours of sick leave at their full rate of pay in the event they have to quarantine or are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Those who qualify include quarantines ordered by federal, state or local governments, such as New Mexico’s mandate that people who have traveled to high-risk states must self-isolate for two weeks, according to the federal agency.

The law also provides up to 80 hours at two-thirds the employee’s rate of pay for employees who need to care for a sick relative or a child who can’t attend school because of closures associated with the pandemic, among other qualifying conditions.

To receive the sick leave, workers must demonstrate they meet the requirements set out in the federal law.

For part-time workers, Jones said the pay rates still apply, but only cover however many hours the worker would work during a typical two-week period. Jones added that the provisions apply to remote workers as well as those operating in an office setting.However, a Department of Labor spokesperson clarified that if work is performed remotely, leave is not necessary unless a COVID-19 qualifying reason prevents the employee from working their schedule.

Employers providing paid leave through the program will be reimbursed through tax credits. Employers are prohibited from discharging, disciplining or discriminating against any employee because they take sick leave through the program, according to the department.

Jones said the new rules went into effect quickly, forcing the university to learn on the fly. Overall, she said the rule has been beneficial for the university’s employees. About 150 employees have taken advantage of the expanded sick leave since April, when the federal law went into effect, Jones said.

“It has not been a negative for us at all,” she said.

Some employers tweaked their approach to sick leave long before the federal government stepped in. Mark Epstein, president and CEO of True Health New Mexico, said the organization switched to offering employees unlimited paid time off years ago, and the decision has helped the organization run smoothly since the pandemic began.

Neil Reagin, human resources director for U.S. Eagle Federal Credit Union, said his organization took steps to relax its policy around sick leave at the beginning of the pandemic, becoming more lenient about getting absences approved. Once the federal rules went into place, Reagin said the credit union offered to cover the remaining rate of pay for employees who would otherwise only receive two-thirds of their normal pay.

“We’re going to do everything we can to prioritize the safety of our people and our members,” Reagin said.

Reagin acknowledged that maintaining staffing levels during a pandemic can be a challenge, and said the credit union handles what it perceives as chronic absences on a case-by-case basis.

Jones added that supervisors should plan ahead for workers to miss periods of time.

“First and foremost, we’re looking at safety,” Jones said.

The federal sick leave provisions expire at the end of the year, with no guarantee they will be renewed or expanded. Reagin said U.S. Eagle is planning for multiple scenarios depending on what happens at the federal level.

“We’ve learned, I think, over the last seven, eight months to take things little chunks at a time,” Reagin said. “A lot can change between now and December.”

Stephen Hamway covers economic development, healthcare and tourism for the Journal. He can be reached at shamway@abqjournal.com.

 

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