Question: I own a small business that is heavily impacted by the COVID-19 situation. What are my obligations to my employees?

Answer: Business owners and employees are feeling the severe economic impact caused by the cancellation of events, quarantines, shelter in place, and social distancing. As of March 17, 2020 here are some common questions and answers related to leave and pay. Be aware that the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act is pending and it will likely expand employer obligations and employee benefits related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of pending legislation and programs aiming to assist during this pandemic, check the links to the resources below for up to date information as new developments arise.

Can employees use paid sick leave for COVID-19 illness? Yes, the employee can use sick leave under the Healthy Workplace Healthy Families Act (HWHFA) and other accrued paid sick leave, vacation, or PTO. However, the employer cannot require the employee to use paid sick leave.

What if employees need time off to care for a sick child or family member? If an employee is eligible for sick leave under the HWHFA the employee may use that paid sick leave for absences due to illness, the diagnosis, care or treatment of an existing health condition or preventative care for the employee or the employee’s family member. Preventative care may include self-quarantine as a result of potential exposure to COVID-19 if quarantine is recommended by civil authorities.

If an employer is covered by the Family Medical Leave Act and California Family Rights Acts and the employee is eligible, the employee may take up to 12 weeks of job protected leave to care for an eligible family member who has a serious health condition. You may also allow employees to use accrued vacation time in this situation.

Employees who are absent from work to care for a family member may be eligible for state paid family leave wage replacement benefits.

Can a healthy employee stay home to avoid getting COVID-19? It depends on government orders, the employer’s policies, and whether the employee’s absence is due to preventative care covered by the HWHFA. If the employee is not sick and is scheduled to work, absent a shelter in place order the absence may be treated as any other unscheduled absence. However, disciplining an employee for absence in this situation is not recommended. Employers should explore alternatives including telecommuting and allowing the use of paid vacation or unpaid leave.

Are employees entitled to time off if their child’s school or day care closes? California Labor Code Section 230.8 requires employers with 25 or more employees to provide up to 40 hours of leave to parents for reasons including a school or child care provider closure. The employee is required to use accrued vacation or personal leave, and if paid leave is exhausted the leave is unpaid.

What happens if I lay employees off or reduce their hours? Depending on the size of the employer, the WARN Act may require employers to provide 60 days notice of a lay off or face penalties. The state and federal WARN Acts are complex and you should seek legal counsel before implementing a mass layoff. Employees who are furloughed, have their work hours reduced, or become unemployed may be eligible for full or partial unemployment insurance benefits. The Governor’s Executive Order waives the one-week unpaid waiting period, so benefits can begin as soon as an employee is eligible.

For more information check the following resources:

https://www.labor.ca.gov/coronavirus2019/#chart

https://www.labor.ca.gov/coronavirus2019

https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/2019-Novel-Coronavirus.htm

https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/fmla/pandemic

https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6201/all-actions?KWICView=false