4 critical issues when designing emergency paid leave

In creating a COVID-19 emergency leave policy, employers have much to figure out, and according to one expert, those with more than 500 employees can boil it down to four key considerations.

According to Rich Fuerstenberg, senior partner in Mercer’s Life, Accident and Disability national specialty practice, the recently signed Families First Coronavirus Act extends paid sick leave and expands FMLA requirements for employees impacted by COVID-19. However, the law only applies to employers with less than 500 employees.

“That leaves employers with more than 500 employees on their own to decide what to do,” says Fuerstenberg, who wrote a blog post on the issue. “For employers who do decide to implement their own emergency paid-leave policy, it will inevitably be compared to the provisions included in the federal law.”

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What will the emergency leave policy provide?
Employers can choose to continue employee pay in full, in part or not at all. Obviously, if pay is partially continued, the policy will need to determine the percentage of pay that is continued. If pay is continued in full or in part, the policy will also need to determine how “pay” is calculated for part-time or hourly employees and how it is defined (e.g., tips, commissions, bonuses, etc.). If an employer chooses not to continue pay, they may continue to provide health benefits for employees for a specified period. Continuing health benefits may be critical for employees who are actually diagnosed with COVID-19 and need treatment.

How long will the policy last?
This is a tricky scenario for employers, as no one knows how long “shelter in place” and other similar government-mandated closures will last. Fuerstenberg says an employer’s emergency leave policy may apply to specific periods of time, but those could require constant adjusting. In deciding how much time to permit in an emergency leave policy, he advises employers to consider current employee access to paid-time-off benefits. Once continuation of pay ends under an emergency leave policy, paid-leave benefits such as vacation and paid sick leave would apply.

How does the policy vary by type of employee?
Fuerstenberg says the need for emergency leave will likely vary significantly within an employer’s population. For one thing, some employees may be able to work effectively from home while others cannot. How much an employee is paid for emergency leave may also vary based on how they are typically paid (bonuses, tips, commissions, etc.). As a result, employers should focus policy design to employee population segments with the greatest need. Doing so will require employers to review collective bargaining agreements, as well as the legal implications of such variations.

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How will emergency leave be administered?
If the policy is to just extend pay and benefits for all employees for a specified period, the solution is simple, Fuerstenberg says, in his post, adding that, if the existing policy already is complicated (e.g., different policies for different segments of the population), administration becomes more challenging. Here, main strategies include:

  • Identifying eligible employees and what policies apply.
  • Determining how much to pay hourly employees, especially those who work irregular schedules.
  • Coordinating with other PTO policies (e.g., FMLA, STD, statutory disability and paid family leave) for employees who become ill while on emergency leave or need to care for a sick family member.

“The need for an emergency leave policy will vary from one organization to the next,” Fuerstenberg writes in his blog. “Employers must consider the administration and compliance implications as well, especially if the policy varies for different employee groups. In a time when the world seems to be changing by the minute, employers need to move both quickly and carefully to decide what is best for them and their employees.”

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at [email protected].