The Department of Labor Walks Back Paid Leave Aid Passed in the Stimulus Package
The Department of Labor issued new guidance on Wednesday that substantially reduces the impact of paid leave requirements in the coronavirus relief law passed by Congress, The New York Times reported.
Lawmakers fought to expand the benefit to American workers, but the recent moves will allow employers with fewer than 50 workers “broad latitude to decline to offer the 12 weeks of paid leave that the law required for workers whose children were home from school or for child care because of the coronavirus pandemic,” according to the report.
The legislation, which provides two weeks of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family leave, and reimburses employers for it with tax credits, already excludes workers at companies with more than 500 employees.
This means more than 75 percent of Americans are employed by companies exempt from the law, which said businesses with fewer than 50 employees could receive exemption if providing the leave would inhibit their ability to function.
Left to determine exactly what that meant, the Labor Department decided that businesses must still cover an employee’s own illness but could opt against paid leave for child care if it would “cause the small business to cease operating,” if employees’ absence would pose “a substantial risk” to the business, or if the company did not have enough workers “able, willing and qualified” to cover the employee requiring leave.
Democratic lawmakers were furious with the move, according to The Times, particularly as the guidance includes provisions not part of the original legislation — for example, that “employers could ask employees for certification of the need to take leave, and that employers needed to have work for the employee to do in order for workers to qualify for leave.”
The guidance also provided broad exemptions for health care workers, The Times reported, further raising concerns among both lawmakers and some economists.
“Exempting health care providers and emergency responders threatens our nation’s ability to fight back against the coronavirus and makes us all more vulnerable,” said Heather Boushey, the president of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a think tank focused on inequality and growth. “Our health care workers are the most susceptible to exposure and are in a position to pass it on to other patients. These are the workers who most need to be protected.”
Democratic Senators Patty Murray (WA) and Rosa DeLauro (CT), both of whom worked hard to ensure the paid leave be expanded in the law, wrote to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia stating that the guidance violates the “congressional intent” of the law.“
Given that congressional intent was to respond to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic,” they wrote, the Labor Department had “the responsibility to provide the maximum flexibility for workers during this crisis — not restricting their leave to when employers grant their consent.”
Without paid leave, millions of Americans could face the choice of staying home to care for a sick child or loved one or paying their bills.