Q: I work for a retailer in downtown Boston. Foot traffic has almost stopped. I am not sure how long my business owner can stay open with the coronavirus concerns. I think my boss wants to lay us off temporarily and then call us back, assuming business picks up again. Also, what if I have to take sick time? Am I capped at the 5 days that my employer provides? What if I have to quarantine for 14 days but I only have 5 sick days?
A: It is an unnerving and stressful time for both employees and employers right now. We have worked with clients who are looking at reducing staff, limiting work hours and even closing temporarily.
If you are terminated, you should receive your final paycheck along with any wages due. This means you should be paid in full for time worked plus any accrued but unused vacation time.
Some employers are unable to continue to pay employees during a temporary company shutdown. If an employee is sick, then the employee could use accrued sick time under the Massachusetts Earned Sick Time law but whether it is paid or not depends upon your company’s size. Employers with 11 or more employees are required to pay employees for this time. Employers with fewer than 11 employees are not required to pay employees for this time. Some employers are modifying their paid time off policies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Attorney Peter Moser, partner at Hirsch Roberts Weinstein LLP, “some employers are advancing accrued time if an employee has no paid time remaining, or are temporarily changing their rules to allow an employee to access an accrued time bank that the employee otherwise could not access during a temporary shutdown, such as an extended illness bank.”
Moser is also advising his clients to watch for legislative action from the federal government. Over the weekend the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill which will be acted upon shortly and that, if passed in its current form, would provide 12 weeks of job protected leave, paid after the first two weeks, for many employees whose job status has been affected by the coronavirus. There is an exception for smaller employers in certain situations. Another aspect of the pending legislation would require many employers to provide two weeks of paid sick leave, covering certain coronavirus-related leave situations.. Yet another aspect of the pending legislation would provide for a federal unemployment stimulus and encourage states to waive the normal seven-day waiting period. Most of these additional benefits are focused on employers with fewer than 500 employees.
It is suggested that if you feel sick, stay home. Limit travel and encourage frequent hand washing. We are strongly encouraging that many of our clients adopt more liberal work from home policies, when possible. We understand that in some industries this might not be possible. For workplaces where telecommuting is not possible, employers should consider increasing implement social distancing practices. This may include offering staggered shifts, or working weekends or evenings. Many employees are also juggling childcare challenges, as schools are closed for weeks or even months. Flexible work hours are often helpful to employees.
Stay tuned to watch for additional updates on the pending legislation.
Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.