Coronavirus and paid leave: What are my rights as an employee in New York?

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- Posted
March 17, 2020

New York became the epicenter for one of the largest clusters of novel coronavirus cases in the nation this week, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators are moving fast to allow workers to stay home sick without employment repercussions.  

In his State of State agenda in January, Cuomo proposed paid sick leave that would cover nearly all New York employees with at least five days of paid time off for illness. New York City enacted a similar bill in 2014.

On Monday, he pledged to send the bill to the state Legislature this week, which would specifically protect those required to quarantine or isolate themselves in relation to the coronavirus.

“I think it’s especially important that if the government is ordering a quarantine, even a voluntary quarantine, that places a personal hardship on a person and that person should get paid,” he said. “I don’t want to add to the burden that we’re creating.”

Who will this affect?

A quarter of U.S. workers are not provided paid sick leave as it is, and some don’t have the option of unpaid sick leave.

Many come to work while ill because they can’t afford to lose a paycheck; Of food industry workers surveyed in the U.S. and Canada in 2015, more than half go to work sick because they’re worried about income or supporting their coworkers, according to the Center for Research and Public Policy.

Those concerns are further highlighted as coronavirus measures, like mandated quarantines, event cancellations or school closures, become clearer possibilities across the state.

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Some food establishments, like banquet center Burgandy Basin near Rochester, Monroe County, already offer paid sick time to full-time employees, and make sure part-time employees are sent home without penalties if they're ill or in quarantine, as the case may be with coronavirus.  

"Hopefully we’ve created a climate here that people know there are no repercussions if they call in," said co-owner Mike Clarcq, a past president of the New York State Restaurant Association.

Businesses are potentially facing a double whammy right now, given the general economic slump related to the coronavirus, plus the possibility of paying sick leave for employees and dealing with a potential shutdown in the coming weeks or months, said Benjamin Mudrick, who works with labor and employment issues at Rochester-based law firm Harter Secrest & Emery.

"If possible, all of my clients want to provide pay to employees if they have to be absent from work," Mudrick said. "The question is how do you strike that balance where the company could survive a shutdown of some sort, but also care for the employees?"

Students in the Edison school district will have a single session day Friday, while staff will have a full day, according to the school district.

Students in the Edison school district will have a single session day Friday, while staff will have a full day, according to the school district. (Photo: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/CDC)

What would be my rights under the proposed law?

The proposed paid sick leave legislation would provide the following for New York employees:

  • Businesses with five to 99 employees would provide five days of paid sick leave
  • Businesses with 100 or more employees would provide seven days
  • Businesses with four or fewer employees would provide five days of job-protected unpaid sick leave.
  • Small businesses already providing paid sick leave could continue to do so.

State paid sick leave mandates result in workers taking an average of two more sick days per year, meaning less of them are going to work while ill, according to a 2020 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Also, mandated paid sick leave does not significantly increase labor costs for employers or decrease employment or wage growth, the study found.

How are employers responding?

  • Microsoft and Amazon pledged to continue paying hourly workers like kitchen staff and janitors, even if their hours are reduced.
  • Walmart waived its attendance occurrence policy through the end of April, and encouraged employees to stay home if they feel ill. If a store location is included in a mandated quarantine radius, employees there will receive up to two weeks pay. If an employee contracts the coronavirus and must stay home, they will receive two weeks pay.
  • Ride-share giants Uber and Lyft have said they will compensate drivers — Uber will do so for up to 14 days — if those drivers are diagnosed with coronavirus or quarantined by health authorities.
  • Instacart instituted a new sick pay policy Monday for all of its in-store shoppers nationwide, including part-time employees and independent contractors affected by coronavirus. Any part-time Instacart employee has access to sick pay and, if they’re diagnosed with coronavirus or placed in mandatory isolation or quarantine, they’re eligible for up to 14 days of pay.
  • Lockheed Martin has instructed any employee with potential exposure to work remotely or self-quarantine. International and domestic employee travel has been limited to what's necessary for business. Visitors to company locations have been limited.
  • McDonald's and Darden Restaurants, which owns Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse, announced new paid sick leave policies for employees this week.
Students wear masks after a confirmed case of the new coronavirus was reported on ASU's Tempe campus on Jan. 26, 2020.

Students wear masks after a confirmed case of the new coronavirus was reported on ASU's Tempe campus on Jan. 26, 2020. (Photo: Patrick Breen/The Republic)

What about insurance companies?

Vice President Mike Pence, who has been tasked with leading the national coronavirus task force, said in a White House meeting Tuesday that major health insurers across the U.S. have agreed to waive copays on coronavirus testing and extend coverage for coronavirus treatment for all their benefit plans, according to the Associated Press.

Leaders from United Health, Humana, Anthem and other major insurance companies were present at the meeting.

The federal government announced last week that Medicare, Medicaid and other federal healthcare programs would cover coronavirus testing. The Internal Revenue Service said Wednesday that high-deductible insurance plans could cover coronavirus testing even if a deductible has not been met. The choice to provide that option to customers is left to the insurer.

Some companies, such as Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, will waive prior authorizations for diagnostic tests and covered services that are medically necessary, according to the company’s website.

What else should I know about options for paid leave?

  • Under New York’sPaid Family Leave program, employees have up to 10 weeks of paid leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition. This leave may not be used for your own health condition.
  • The federal Family and Medical Leave Actprovides for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if you have a serious health condition or are caring for a family member with a serious health condition. You must have worked for your employer for a year and your employer must have 50 or more employees.
  • If you’re sick, you may be able to request unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation under laws that prohibit disability discrimination.
An airline passenger wearing a mask makes his way through the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport Saturday, March 7, 2020, in San Francisco. As cases of the coronavirus surge in Italy, Iran, South Korea, the U.S. and elsewhere, many scientists say it's plain that the world is in the grips of a pandemic — a serious global outbreak.

An airline passenger wearing a mask makes his way through the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport Saturday, March 7, 2020, in San Francisco. As cases of the coronavirus surge in Italy, Iran, South Korea, the U.S. and elsewhere, many scientists say it's plain that the world is in the grips of a pandemic — a serious global outbreak. (Photo: David J. Phillip, AP)

What’s happening with paid sick leave nationally?

Discussions around paid sick leave are heating up at the federal level, as lawmakers look to pass a legislative package that would protect employees taking leave related to  coronavirus.

Paid sick leave is not federally required, but is mandated in 12 states and Washington, D.C. A number of cities and local jurisdictions have also passed laws around paid sick leave.

Coronavirus sick leave: Walmart, McDonald's, Olive Garden add COVID-19 paid sick leave policies

The legislation, proposed by senators from Washington and Connecticut last week, would require all employers to give workers 14 days of paid sick leave during a public health emergency, including the current coronavirus threat.

Pence said Monday that President Donald Trump’s administration is working to protect those who can’t afford to stop working, even while ill.

“When we tell people, 'If you're sick, stay home,' the president has tasked the team with developing economic policies that will make it very, very clear that we're going to stand by those hard-working Americans,” Pence said.

STADDEO@Gannett.com