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Families First Coronavirus Response Act: What It Means For Employers

Contributed by SmithAmundsen’s COVID-19 Task Force (Kelly Haab-Tallitsch, Rebecca Dobbs Bush, Suzannah Overholt, and Jeff Risch), March 15, 2020

On March 14, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Bill 6201 (HR6201). The legislation seeks to protect private sector workers and government employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the legislation does not apply to any private sector employer with 500 or more employees. To be clear, the current legislation will regulate only those private sector employers who employ less than 500 employees. The Senate is expected to take up the bill early this week. The legislation would take effect within 15 days of enactment and expire on December 31, 2020.

HR6201 contains major changes to the FMLA as it seeks to provide job protected paid leave to any employee who has been on the job for at least 30 days – for up to 12 weeks – related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation also mandates up to 80-hours of paid sick leave for reasons related to COVID-19. It also provides $1 billion in additional funding to the Unemployment Insurance (UI) System and encourages states to relax UI eligibility requirements. Tax credits are provided to employers to help offset the financial cost of the paid leave.

Highlights of the legislation include:

PAID TIME OFF:

Emergency Paid Sick Leave – up to 80-hours for ALL employees working for a private employer with less than 500 employees or any public sector employer

HR6201 requires employers with fewer than 500 employees and all government employers to provide all employees up to 80-hours of paid sick leave, paid at the employee’s regular rate of pay in order to:

  1. self-quarantine if diagnosed with COVID-19;
  2. seek a diagnosis or care for symptoms of COVID-19; or
  3. comply with an order or recommendation by a public health official or health care provider to self-isolate due to exposure to or symptoms of COVID-19.

Additionally, this paid sick leave entitlement must also be available – at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay – for employees to care for a family member for such purposes or to care for a child (under 18 years of age) whose school has closed or paid child care provider is unavailable due to the coronavirus.

Full-time employees are entitled to 2 weeks (80 hours) of paid leave and part-time employees are entitled to the average number of hours that they work in a typical two-week period. Paid sick leave under HR6201 must be provided in addition to any paid time off provided under an employer’s existing policies and employers may not require employees exhaust existing accrued paid time off prior to using emergency paid sick leave. The bill ensures employees who work under a multiemployer collective agreement are also provided such benefits that meet the requirements of the Act.

EXPANDED COVERAGE FOR FMLA:

Paid Family and Medical Leave — up to 12 weeks for employees employed for 30 or more days by a private employer with less than 500 employees or any public sector employer

Employees of employers with fewer than 500 employees or government employers, who have been on the job for at least 30 calendar days, have the right to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to be used for any of the following reasons:

  • To comply with a requirement or recommendation by a public health official or health care provider that the presence of the employee in the workplace would jeopardize the health of others due to the employee’s exposure to or symptoms of coronavirus;
  • To care for a family member who is adhering to a requirement or recommendation by a public health official or health care provider to quarantine due to exposure to or symptoms of coronavirus; and
  • To care for a child (under 18 years of age) of an employee if the child’s school or place of care has been closed, or the child-care provider is unavailable, due to coronavirus

The first 2-weeks of time off for the above reasons are unpaid under the FMLA, but the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Law requires that an employee is paid during that time period, as described above.  After the first 2-weeks of leave under the FMLA, employees will be entitled to receive a benefit from their employers that will be no less than two-thirds (2/3rd) of the employee’s usual pay. The bill ensures employees who work under a multiemployer collective agreement and whose employers pay into a multiemployer plan are provided with leave.

Certain small employers can be exempt from this expanded FMLA coverage if they meet a “viability” exception.  While we can assume the general intent behind the exception, the precise mechanism and process for such an exception is subject to US DOL regulation yet to be published.

The Act also clarifies that individuals that are subject to a multiemployer collectively bargained agreement and whose employers pay into a multiemployer plan must be provided with leave and benefits on par with the benefits provided under the Act.

PAYROLL CREDIT FOR PAID LEAVE

HR6201 provides a refundable tax credit applied to the employer portion of the Social Security payroll tax equal to 100 percent of paid sick leave and family leave wages paid by an employer for each calendar quarter, subject to the following caps: Sick leave wages paid with respect to employees who must self-quarantine, obtain a diagnosis or care for symptoms, or comply with a self-isolation recommendation or order from a public health official or health care provider are capped at $511 per day for purposes of the payroll tax credit; Sick leave wages paid to employees caring for a family member or for a child whose school or place of care has been closed, are capped at $200 per day; and  Family leave wages under the expanded FMLA taken into account for each employee are capped at $200 per day and $10,000 for all calendar quarters.

If the credit exceeds the employer’s total Social Security payroll tax liability for any calendar quarter, the excess credit is refundable to the employer. Employers may elect to not have the credit apply. A similar refundable tax credit is available for self-employed individuals.

SmithAmundsen’s Labor & Employment COVID-19 Task Force is continuing to monitor all local, state and federal orders and legislative initiatives in these unprecedented times. Be assured that we will continue to provide updates where and when warranted. We will also be providing ongoing webinars on the subject to try and help employers operate as effectively and safely as possible. With that in mind, please do not hesitate to contact your SA relationship attorney in the days and weeks ahead for direct guidance. We are here 24/7.

BREAKING NEWS: Illinois Recreational Cannabis Law Protections for Employers & the Workplace Clarified!

Contributed by Jeffrey A. Risch, November 15, 2019As Illinois set out to become the first state to legalize recreational cannabis through statutory authority, the legislative intent for protections for employers and the workplace were intended to include some of the strongest in the nation. However, when the dust settled and the statutory framework was analyzed, there appeared to be room for reasonable minds to have differing opinions on what the law actually meant for the workplace.

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On one hand, could employers lawfully implement reasonable, non-discriminatory drug testing policies aimed at prohibiting applicants and employees from lawfully using recreational cannabis and gaining or maintaining employment? On the other hand, would employers be violating the law if they did not hire someone who tested positive for THC or if they could not ultimately demonstrate that an employee was actually impaired while on the job? These sorts of questions lingered. A quick online search trying to find answers would only frustrate HR professionals, safety managers, and business owners further. Clarity was needed.Therefore, through the efforts of several business groups and trade associations (including the Illinois Chamber of Commerce) working across both political aisles, SB1557 passed the Illinois General Assembly on November 14, 2019. While SB1557 includes wrinkles for the licensing, manufacturing and distribution of recreational cannabis in Illinois, it also contains language found below designed to protect employers from litigation.In essence, the language attempts to clear up concern that an employer may have been required to show actual impairment in the workplace vs. simply being able to implement and follow a reasonable, non-discriminatory drug testing policy.   Specifically, Section 10-50 of the law will now read as follows (changes in bold):

(410 ILCS 705/10-50) Sec. 10-50. Employment; employer liability.(a) Nothing in this Act shall prohibit an employer from adopting reasonable zero tolerance or drug free workplace policies, or employment policies concerning drug testing, smoking, consumption, storage, or use of cannabis in the workplace or while on call provided that the policy is applied in a nondiscriminatory manner.(b) Nothing in this Act shall require an employer to permit an employee to be under the influence of or use cannabis in the employer’s workplace or while performing the employee’s job duties or while on call.(c) Nothing in this Act shall limit or prevent an employer from disciplining an employee or terminating employment of an employee for violating an employer’s employment policies or workplace drug policy.(d) An employer may consider an employee to be impaired or under the influence of cannabis if the employer has a good faith belief that an employee manifests specific, articulable symptoms while working that decrease or lessen the employee’s performance of the duties or tasks of the employee’s job position, including symptoms of the employee’s speech, physical dexterity, agility, coordination, demeanor, irrational or unusual behavior, or negligence or carelessness in operating equipment or machinery; disregard for the safety of the employee or others, or involvement in any accident that results in serious damage to equipment or property; disruption of a production or manufacturing process; or carelessness that results in any injury to the employee or others. If an employer elects to discipline an employee on the basis that the employee is under the influence or impaired by cannabis, the employer must afford the employee a reasonable opportunity to contest the basis of the determination.(e) Nothing in this Act shall be construed to create or imply a cause of action for any person against an employer for:

  1. actions taken pursuant to an employer’s reasonable workplace drug policy, including but not limited to subjecting an employee or applicant to reasonable drug and alcohol testing, reasonable and nondiscriminatory random drug testing, and discipline, termination of employment, or withdrawal of a job offer due to a failure of a drug test; , including but not limited to subjecting an employee or applicant to reasonable drug and alcohol testing under the employer’s workplace drug policy, including an employee’s refusal to be tested or to cooperate in testing procedures or disciplining or termination of employment;actions based on the employer’s good faith belief that an employee used or possessed cannabis in the employer’s workplace or while performing the employee’s job duties or while on call in violation of the employer’s employment policies;actions, including discipline or termination of employment, based on the employer’s good faith belief that an employee was impaired as a result of the use of cannabis, or under the influence of cannabis, while at the employer’s workplace or while performing the employee’s job duties or while on call in violation of the employer’s workplace drug policy; orinjury, loss, or liability to a third party if the employer neither knew nor had reason to know that the employee was impaired.

(f) Nothing in this Act shall be construed to enhance or diminish protections afforded by any other law, including but not limited to the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act or the Opioid Alternative Pilot Program.(g) Nothing in this Act shall be construed to interfere with any federal, state, or local restrictions on employment including, but not limited to, the United States Department of Transportation regulation 49 CFR 40.151(e) or impact an employer’s ability to comply with federal or state law or cause it to lose a federal or state contract or funding.(h) As used in this Section, “workplace” means the employer’s premises, including any building, real property, and parking area under the control of the employer or area used by an employee while in the performance of the employee’s job duties, and vehicles, whether leased, rented, or owned. “Workplace” may be further defined by the employer’s written employment policy, provided that the policy is consistent with this Section.(i) For purposes of this Section, an employee is deemed “on call” when such employee is scheduled with at least 24 hours’ notice by his or her employer to be on standby or otherwise responsible for performing tasks related to his or her employment either at the employer’s premises or other previously designated location by his or her employer or supervisor to perform a work-related task.

Additionally, much needed clarification for public employers was also included concerning how off duty use of cannabis by certain emergency personnel should be administered. The following was added to Section 10-35. Limitations and penalties:

(410 ILCS 705/10-35)(8) the use of cannabis by a law enforcement officer, corrections officer, probation officer, or firefighter while on duty; nothing in this Act prevents a public employer of law enforcement officers, corrections officers, probation officers, paramedics, or firefighters from prohibiting or taking disciplinary action for the consumption, possession, sales, purchase, or delivery of cannabis or cannabis-infused substances while on or off duty, unless provided for in the employer’s policies. However, an employer may not take adverse employment action against an employee based solely on the lawful possession or consumption of cannabis or cannabis-infused substances by members of the employee’s household. To the extent that this Section conflicts with any applicable collective bargaining agreement, the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement shall prevail. Further, nothing in this Act shall be construed to limit in any way the right to collectively bargain over the subject matters contained in this Act;

These changes help to better assure employers that they have the ability to implement fair, reasonable drug testing policies designed to protect their employees and the public. Recreational consumers will certainly have the legal right to use cannabis, but the employer should have the legal right to say “you better not have THC in your system to become or remain employed here.” Of course, any drug testing policy must be carefully vetted, designed, and implemented. After all, lawyers will be lawyers. 

While many questions still remain and medicinal usage requires a different analysis (for now) it appears employers can take better comfort and be more confident in creating policy designed to maintain a safe and healthy workplace through reasonable drug testing policies. However, employers must continue to carefully examine their own unique industry, risks and risk tolerances, together with their geographic footprint and applicant pool. The drug testing policy and drug-free workplace program for the “widget manufacturer” in Peoria is likely to be vastly different than that of the “accounting firm” in Schaumburg.

The Doctor is In – At Amazon

Contributed by Suzannah Wilson Overholt, October 30, 2019

Studio macro of a stethoscope and digital tablet with shallow DOF evenly matched abstract on wood table background copy space

Last year we reported on Haven Healthcare, the venture started by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and J.P. Morgan. Amazon has now announced a pilot program for its employees in Seattle that puts a modern spin on employer provided health care.

Announced in September, Amazon Care  provides telemedicine and in-person health care services. Employees can see a provider via a mobile app or website and text a nurse on any health topic. If follow-up care is needed, a nurse can make a home visit. Amazon contracted with a private practice for the nurse visits to collect lab samples, perform some testing (e.g. strep throat), administer common vaccines, and perform physical examinations. Courier Care delivers medications to employees’ homes (likely linked to Amazon’s earlier purchase of medication delivery company PillPack).

This announcement follows Amazon’s hiring of a health care technology expert and a physician who supervised a chain of health clinics in Seattle. Amazon strengthened the telemedicine component of Amazon Care last week when it purchased Health Navigator, which supports medical providers through automated technology.  Health Navigator has a tool that recognizes a patient’s written complaints and acts like a doctor would when listening to a patient describe symptoms. The company also has a health “bot” chat function that asks a patient questions and then interprets the answers to recommend next steps for care. A “diagnosis symptom checker” generates a list of possible causes for a symptom based on a patient’s responses to questions. 

Amazon Care is not connected to the employees’ regular health care providers, which may limit coordinated care. However, Amazon maintains that the program is a supplement to, not a substitute for, health insurance already offered to its employees. Only employees who participate in Amazon’s health plans can participate in Amazon Care. 

Amazon’s model is a far cry from the employer sponsored health clinics of yesteryear and reflects a growing trend among employers interested in controlling health care costs. Employers hope such clinics will prevent chronic diseases among their workforce through a renewed emphasis on primary care and improve productivity since employees do not have to miss time from work for doctors’ appointments. They are also a recruiting (and retention) tool.  Clinic operators have been exploring ways to use technology or develop new models to extend the reach of their services.  

In 2018, a-third of U.S. employers with 5,000 or more employees offered general medical worksite clinics, up from 24% in 2012. Many of these employers contract with third-party clinic operators, creating a growing market for such companies. Health systems operate about 18% of worksite clinics

Amazon’s model is different, however, because Amazon is self-insured and is creating its own health care system separate from the existing market by contracting directly with providers and acquiring the assets to provide telemedicine services. This appears to be an introduction to Haven Healthcare’s objective and could have wide ranging implications for insurers, health care providers and employers by restructuring the manner in which health care is provided and coordinated. We will continue to monitor this developing trend and provide further updates.  

US DOL Issues Final Rule on Salary Threshold for Exempt Status

Contributed by Sara Zorich, September 24, 2019

In a follow up to our recent post, the US Department of Labor (DOL) has now issued its final rule regarding the salary thresholds for exempt status. The final rule will go into effect on January 1, 2020 and establishes the following rules:

  1. Salary exempt employees must earn at least $684/week (equivalent to $35,568 per year for a full-year worker) (which is slightly more than was proposed in March 2019 due to inflation/updated data but less than was proposed during the Obama Era);
  2. Employers can use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments that are paid at least annually to satisfy up to 10% of the salary basis for the white collar exemptions (if this is utilized the minimum salary paid can be no less than $615.60/week) (however, it should be noted that (1) if the employee does not earn the bonus the employer will need to pay the amount anyway no later than one week from the end of the 52 week period or the salary basis will not be met and (2) if the employee leaves employment before the bonus is paid/earned the employer will have to pay the pro-rata share of the bonus at termination to ensure the minimum salary threshold was met);
  3. In order to qualify for the “highly compensated exemption” employees must earn at least $107,432/year (formerly $100,000/year) and must be paid at least $684/week (however, Illinois employers should note this is not applicable in Illinois because Illinois did not adopt the highly compensated exemption); and
  4. Revises the special salary level for the motion picture industry and US territories.

We anticipate the new rule will receive legal challenge. However, litigation is unpredictable, so employers should begin preparing now to ensure they are ready for January 1, 2020.

Does Your Attendance Policy Violate the FMLA?

Contributed by Steven Jados, September 5, 2019

The recent decision in Dyer v. Ventra Sandusky, LLC, issued by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee), should motivate employers to take another look at whether their attendance policies run afoul of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

There are plenty of gray areas in the law, but it is generally clear that employees are not to be disciplined because they are absent for FMLA-covered reasons. That also means that employees should not accumulate attendance “points,” e.g., under a no-fault attendance policy, for FMLA-covered absences when such points can contribute to discipline up to and including termination of employment.

Clocking In

To its credit, the employer in Dyer did not assign attendance points for FMLA-covered absences.  But unfortunately for the employer, that is not the end of the story.

Under the employer’s attendance policy, employees were eligible for a one-point “reduction” of their attendance point balance for every 30-day period in which the employee had “perfect attendance.” The employer’s definition of perfect attendance was not self-explanatory.  For instance, an employee could be absent for several different reasons — including vacation, bereavement, jury duty, military duty, holidays, and union leave — and still have “perfect attendance” and eligibility for attendance point reductions.

However, FMLA-covered absences were not included among the types of absences that preserved perfect attendance status and point-reduction eligibility. And if an employee had a FMLA-covered absence, his progress toward the 30-day point reduction goal was reset to zero.

The Sixth Circuit noted that the FMLA’s regulations generally require that an employee not lose benefits while on FMLA leave. Because attendance point reductions (and progress toward such reductions) are benefits, the Sixth Circuit noted that, at the very least, progress toward the 30-day goal should be frozen while employees are on FMLA leave, rather than being reset to zero. The court also indicated that if other “equivalent,” but non-FMLA forms of leave were counted toward the 30-day goal, then FMLA-covered absences should also be counted toward the 30-day goal.

The bottom line is that the Dyer decision instructs employers that disciplinary and benefit policies must be closely scrutinized to determine whether they might dissuade employees from taking FMLA leave — or otherwise harm employees who take FMLA leave. If harm results, or if employees are faced with the decision of taking FMLA leave or forgoing benefits, potential exposure to liability under the FMLA may exist.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Policy Challenged on Third-Party Worksites

Contributed by Jacqueline Lentini McCullough, June 7, 2019

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) memorandum-issued policy is at the heart of a court case challenging recent H-1B visa denials.

The “Contracts and Itineraries Requirements for H-1B Petitions Involving Third-Party Worksites” memo was issued on February 20, 2018 without any notice or comment period required by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). The memo directs adjudicators to ensure a contractor has actual and exclusive “control” of the contractor’s employees at the third-party site as a criterion for visa approval. This requirement comes from a rigid interpretation of the Department of Labor’s definition of “employer” which reads: “Has an employer-employee relationship with respect to employees under this part, as indicated by the fact that it may hire, pay, fire, supervise, or otherwise control the work of any such employee….” Instead of considering any one of these circumstances as qualifying, USCIS effectively changed the “or” to an “and,” requiring all of them.

H-1B visa denial rates skyrocketed the past two years, especially for contractors working at third-party worksites. Denial rates for initial H-1B petitions in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 were 1 % for large technology companies but 34%-80% for companies that put H-1B visa holders at third-party sites. Third-party site work factors highly in IT consulting.

Visa Stamp

After having many H-1B visas denied or issued for short validity periods, several IT consulting firms filed lawsuits against USCIS. Those lawsuits have been consolidated into one under the aegis of the IT industry trade association ITServe Alliance.

Judge Rosemary Collyer presided over a court hearing of ITServe Alliance v. USCIS on 05/09/2019. Plaintiff attorneys produced data showing from FY 2012 to FY 2017, USCIS approved 94 % of their client’s ERP analysts’ H-1B petitions. During FY 2018 to FY 2019, the approval rate dropped to 19%.

Judge Collyer has taken issue with the disparate visa approval rates between different industries and USCIS’s requirement that contractors show three years’ worth of specific work assignments for H-1B petitioners when they are allowed “nonproductive” time as long as they are paid.

As Judge Collyer considers the case, she will rule on whether discovery is warranted to find out what has caused the different adjudications of H-1B petitions. Not only are H-1B approval rates markedly down for the IT industry, but requests for evidence and H-1B petition processing times have ballooned.

Requests for evidence (RFE) for all H-1B petitions have jumped from below 30% in first quarter FY 2017 to 60% in first quarter FY 2019. Meanwhile the number of petitions approved with a completed RFE has sunk from 80 % to just over 60 %.

Stay tuned as we will continue to provide updates as new information emerges.