Many schools across the US are not welcoming students back for full-time in-person learning in the fall. On August 5, 2020, after Chicago Public Schools announced it would begin the academic year remotely in September, New York City became the last remaining major school system in the country to even try to offer in-person classes this fall. Proposed plans for schools that aren’t fully reopening range from full remote learning to hybrid models, where students are in school only half a day or several days a week coupled with a remote learning component from home. Either way, employers are likely to find themselves inundated with requests from parents of school-age children for continued work from home arrangements or other work-schedule flexibility. In our Q&A below, we have highlighted issues employers may want to keep in mind as employees with school-age children try to navigate a school year with its own “novel” aspects.
1. Are employers legally obligated to provide any sort of leave for employees who have to stay home with their children if schools don’t fully reopen?
It depends. If the employer is a “covered employer” under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), employees may be eligible for paid leave under the FFCRA. The FFCRA was enacted to provide employees with COVID-19 related paid leave. Covered employers under the FFCRA (generally, private sector employers who have fewer than 500 employees at the time the leave request is made) are required to provide eligible employees with partially paid child care leave for certain COVID-19-related reasons, including if the child’s school, place of care or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.
Does virtual learning count as a “closed or unavailable” school for purposes of the FFCRA? Though the DOL guidance and FFCRA regulations have not spoken directly on this topic, the DOL’s early Q&A guidance on the FFCRA indicates that a school is “closed” for purposes of EPSLA or EFMLEA leave when the “physical location where [the] child received instruction or care is now closed.” The focus on “physical location” signals that if the school building is closed to students and students are required to learn remotely, the school is “closed” for purposes of the FFCRA.
The FFCRA imposes two federal leave obligations on employers – the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA) and the Emergency Family Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFMLEA).
- Under the EPSLA:
- An eligible employee may take up to two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay where the employee is unable to work or telework for reasons including to care for a child whose school, place of care or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19. Pay is capped at $200 per day and $2,000 in the aggregate.
- Under the EFMLEA:
- An eligible employee may take up to twelve weeks of “expanded” FMLA leave when unable to work or telework due to a need for leave to care for a child whose school, place of care or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.
- The first two weeks of EFMLEA leave are unpaid. An eligible employee may use paid sick leave under the EPSLA or other accrued paid leave under the employer’s leave policies to receive pay for those two weeks.
- An eligible employee may take up to an additional 10 weeks of paid EFMLEA leave at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay, based on the number of hours the employee would be normally scheduled to work those days. Pay is capped at $200 per day and $10,000 in the aggregate.
In addition, state and local leave laws may apply, many of which either provide additional leave or state that providing care for a child whose school is closed or unavailable for COVID-19 reasons is a protected reason for an employee to take leave.