The consequences of the Corona virus outbreak are severe, immediate as well as far-reaching. Predictably, the pandemic is affecting every aspect of our lives. Workers and employers alike are increasingly concerned given the cessation of so many businesses in the near-lockdown environment in which we suddenly find ourselves. While some industries now appear to enjoy a boom (delivery service companies, tech companies, etc.), others are effectively at a standstill (restaurant, travel, hospitality, airlines, etc.)

Yet, help is around the corner and should do much to alleviate fears, uncertainty, and instability. Both the Federal and the State governments are taking unprecedented initiatives to assure all workers and many employers of forthcoming massive relief.

A. At Federal level, the House of Representatives passed a sweeping bill this past Saturday to tackle the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. In summary, the bill provides as follows:

(i) Free Corona Virus Testing. The bill calls for free testing for anyone whose doctor says a test is needed. Patients would not be responsible for any deductibles or copayments.

The free testing would extend to those on Medicaid or Medicare and provide a pathway for uninsured people to get free testing through federal coverage programs.

(ii) Expands family Medical Leave for Employees in Companies with 500 or Less Employees.

The House bill would expand the existing family and medical leave program. Under current law, employers are required to give up to 12 weeks of job protected medical leave (meaning you cannot be fired), but they are not required to provide any pay during that time. The House bill, however, would provide paid leave for workers if they have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, if they are caring for a family member who has it or if they are caring for a child or another dependent because of a school or care facility closing.

The bill would provide those who qualify with two-thirds of their average monthly earnings, with a cap of $4,000, for up to 12 weeks. The benefits could be paid retroactively and would be available for those who had to leave work starting Jan. 19.

However, these benefits would apply only to companies with fewer than 500 employees.

(iii) New Paid Sick Program. In addition to the expansion of paid family leave, the bill would also establish a new paid sick leave program calling for employers to immediately grant 14 days of paid sick leave that could be used by infected people, caretakers and parents whose children’s schools have been closed.

This benefit, too, would be available only to people working at companies with fewer than 500 employees. Small businesses (defined as having 50 employees or less) would be reimbursed for providing the 14 days of additional paid sick leave.

For employers who already provide paid sick leave, the additional leave made available under the House bill should still be provided, and employers would not be allowed to make changes to their existing policies to avoid offering additional paid leave.

(iv) Unemployment Benefits Expanded. The bill would provide additional funds to states that experience a 10 percent increase in unemployment. States would be required to loosen eligibility requirements for unemployment, such as work search requirements or waiting periods.

(v) Food Assistance. The bill would allocate an additional $500 million to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which provides access to food for low-income pregnant women and mothers with young children who have lost their jobs because of the outbreak.

An additional $400 million would be granted to the Emergency Food Assistance Program, which would help food banks meet the increased demand they are likely to experience.
The bill would allow for states to provide families whose children receive free or reduced-price school meals with money to buy food in the event of school closings. The assistance would kick in after five consecutive days of canceled school.
It also calls for emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program aid to families with children who receive free or reduced-price meals at school. The work requirements for SNAP would be suspended under the bill.

For older Americans, the bill would provide emergency funding for programs like Home-Delivered Nutrition Services, which provides meals to senior centers and homes of older adults who live alone.

(vi) Protections for Health Care Workers. Many health care workers could be at risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, especially as care facilities fill up with sick patients. The bill would require state and local hospitals and nursing facilities, some of which are not subject to certain federal regulations, to comply with additional safety and health plans.

B. At New Jersey State level, for example, the Assembly has just approved unanimously two distinct proposed bills. These will become law once the Senate also approves them and the Governor signs off on them. The two new proposed bills, known as A 3846 and A 3848, provide relief in the following manner:

I. First, they create the “Temporary Lost Wage Unemployment Program.” This program would allow persons to claim lost wages due to the coronavirus disease equal to the person’s average weekly compensation earned during the past calendar year. The program would also assist employers who pay wages to workers ordered under quarantine by a licensed healthcare practitioner as a result of coronavirus. The fund would compensate persons for lost wages because of any of the following:

(vii) Absence from work to care for a family member;
(viii) Absence from work because of his or her illness;
(ix) Absence from work due to school or childcare facility closures
(x) Other reasons determined by the Commissioner of Labor

II. Second, the Program would make it unlawful to terminate or otherwise penalize an employee who requests time off from work based upon the recommendation of a medical professional that the employee has, or is likely to have, an infectious disease, which may infect others in the workplace. It would also make it unlawful to refuse to reinstate the employee to his or her position held when the leave commenced.

We, at Popescu Law Group, will continue to advise and inform you of significant developments. Stay safe in these trying times. We share in the conviction that we shall overcome the challenge, no doubt, and shall emerge stronger, better prepared and more united from this pandemic.

Author-Robert Popescu, Esq. – PLG