Back to School, but Definitely Not Back to Normal!

This year, employees and employers alike are struggling with decisions on how to deal with the upcoming school year in light of the new distance learning plans resulting from the COVID pandemic and wondering what options are available to them. It is going to be more important than ever that we all work together and remain flexible to achieve success in the upcoming months.

For employers with less than 500 employees, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) generally provides employees with the ability to take up to twelve weeks off work, paid at 2/3 of their normal wages, to help support their minor children as they learn to navigate the new world of distance learning. Employers receive a 100% tax credit on money used for this purpose. With both employer and employee agreement, this leave can be used intermittently and the Department of Labor (DOL) encourages collaboration and flexibility to meet mutual needs.

The last several months have shown us that remote or semi-remote work is possible for much of the workforce and has resulted in many employers rethinking their work-from-home policies as it becomes clear that it is the job performance, not the job location, that matters. Employees who take advantage of this privilege to support their child with school will need to be cautious and take proactive steps to ensure job performance does not suffer.

Additionally, California’s Labor Commissioner has clarified that employees are allowed to use their accrued paid sick leave in order to support a child whose school is closed due to a public health emergency and several cities and counties have expanded their paid sick leave ordinances for this reason as well. Employers should check local ordinances for changes before denying any request for paid sick leave.

Prior to COVID, we had limited, unpaid protected leave options available that are still available today. For employers with more than 25 employees, 40 hours of unpaid leave is available to employees each calendar year to handle child-related school activities. Additionally, unpaid, protected leave may be available to employees whose children have a qualifying medical condition that requires the parent oversee remote schooling. Employers must be cautious to avoid running afoul of protected leave options available to employees.

Finally, with many employers finding it necessary to reduce work schedules and employee headcounts, some parents are volunteering to be furloughed so they can collect unemployment insurance benefits while they figure out a plan to make distance learning successful for their child. There is currently proposed legislation underway to expand California’s paid family leave benefits and that may offer additional support to employees who cannot work.

As employees begin to exhaust various accrued paid time off benefits, we will all need to consider options we have not considered before in order to protect our employees and our business to succeed in this new normal. There is no one-size-fits-all solution but, working together, we can prevail.