Understanding government business assistance
Across the country, employers are facing never-before-seen economic challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many companies have shut their doors, at least temporarily, amid forced closures as state-wide and city-specific national emergencies are declared. Business owners who are able to stay open are grappling with the delicate balance of the coronavirus health crisis and the impending coronavirus economic fallout — and what this means for their workforce.
To deal with one piece of this issue, the president signed the COVID-19 Response Act on March 18. The bill went into effect on April 2 and will remain in place until December. Employers are bracing themselves as they are now mandated to provide paid sick and family medical leave.
Let's pause there for a moment to address the following: At Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific, we understand that for most employers and business owners, their employees come first. And truly, this law is meant to assist the many employees and families who are sick and/or need to take care of a sick loved one who has been diagnosed with coronavirus. It's good-faith legislation.
For that reason, BBB NW+P encourages business owners to maintain those solid relationships with their employees amid this ongoing crisis. Talk to them about the Response Act; prepare answers to their questions, and be empathetic when an employee needs to use it. It is these transparent dialogues that build employer-employee trust during trying times.
This sentiment was echoed by Ernst & Young during a recent webinar for businesses. Ernst & Young is a multinational professional services firm specializing in financial advisory.
"We are advising all clients to have honest and open discussions with their customers, vendors and capital providers," said Glenn Steinberg, the global and American supply chain operations leader for Ernst & Young. "Businesses need to make sure they are maintaining credibility with their key stakeholders."
To do this, it is critical to understand the scope of the bill.
The bill is broken up into two parts; the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (FMLA). Employers will be expected to comply with both. However, the law is primarily geared to companies between 50-500 employees. We will get into more on that.
The Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act
This act allows employees to take sick time if they are diagnosed or self-quarantined, awaiting medical diagnosis and/or are caring for an individual who is under an isolation or quarantine order. Before being passed, this bill was edited to ensure employees could take time off not just for a "family member" but for an individual they need to care for.
Employers with fewer than 500 employees must provide full-time employees with 80 hours of paid sick leave at the employee's regular rate. If you have part-time employees, you are still expected to also provide them with sick leave. Part-time employees are to be paid based on the average number of hours the employee worked for the six months prior to taking the leave; if the employee has worked less than six months, they are entitled to time-off equal to the average number of hours they would have been scheduled for during a two-week period.
Any individual, a full-time employee who has been with their business for at least 30 days before their first day of leave, may take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave. This is true if the employee also uses telework — the same rules apply. There is now only one blanket qualification for an employee to meet eligibility: to care for their child (under 18) if the child's school is closed, day-care is closed, or the childcare providers are unavailable due to a health emergency. Once again, part-time employees are still allowed to use FMLA, and rates should be calculated the same way they are calculated in the Paid Sick Leave Act.
With the FMLA, there are very important caveats for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. At BBB, we know the bulk of our customers and accredited businesses are those small businesses.
Businesses with less than 50 employees may be exempt by the Secretary of Labor if the required leave would "jeopardize the viability of their businesses." There have not been many details released about this potential exemption, but BBB will be monitoring the developments closely.
"There is no word yet on how this will be shown," said Lilia Tyrrell, lawyer at Bozeman, Montana-based, Kasting, Kauffman and Mersen. "It is important during all of this to maintain good records…of the leave you provide and if you can't, of your finances during this time."
Also, important is that employers with 25 employees or more must return any employee who has taken Emergency FMLA to the same or an equivalent position upon returning to work. For a business with less than 25 employees, again there is an exclusion available. Employers will not be required to return the employee to the same position if that position no longer exists due to an economic downturn or other circumstances caused by a public health emergency during the period of the Emergency FMLA.
"To alleviate some burden, employers will receive a tax credit on [their] quarterly payroll tax for providing the required leave," Tyrrell added.
At the Better Business Bureau, we understand there is hardship in trying to comply with all of these new laws and regulations. But, much like we outline in our Eight Standards of Trust, honoring promises is a critical piece of being a business owner and caring employer. Much like you'd honor promises in a normal work environment, you should honor promises to your employees relevant to fair labor standards, even amid crisis.
What can you, as a business owner, be doing right now?
First, BBB and Ernst & Young both advise to be realistic in all communications. Don't be overly optimistic with your employees or stakeholders if you do have bad news. Simply be upfront.
Second, EY stated the following: "Document everything and maintain records because there is always an undercurrent with the government to make sure employers and employees are not taking advantage of government assistance."
For more answers to common questions around terminating employees, finding employee coverage and affordability, check out this article.
For a comprehensive look at what BBB is doing, head to the Better Business Bureau website.
Danielle Kane is the Portland Marketplace Manager for Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific. She can be reached at 503-833-2301.
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