One of the most important things we can all do to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the government tells us, is stay home, especially if we’re sick.
Employers have probably been telling you the same about any illness for years. But many workplaces haven’t backed up that advice with the one thing that would make it easy to stay home when you’re sick: paid time off from work.
The coronavirus pandemic has made this conundrum glaring, and the U.S. government has stepped in to address it while we face this crisis.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), one prong of the federal government’s response to COVID-19, went into effect on April 1, expanding access to paid sick leave and paid family medical leave (FMLA) for U.S. workers through Dec. 31, 2020.
The legislation provides tax credits and requirements for employers to provide paid leave to workers affected by COVID-19. It has some exceptions, but in general, if you’re unable to work for coronavirus-related reasons this year, you are likely guaranteed some paid time off.
How to Qualify for Paid Leave Related to the Coronavirus
Whether you’re entitled to paid sick leave or expanded FMLA — and how much — under the new rules depends on who you work for and why you’re unable to work.
Which Companies Will Provide Paid Leave?
The new law requires private-sector employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide paid leave to eligible workers. All workers are entitled to paid sick leave; to be eligible for expanded FMLA, you have to have worked for the company for at least 30 days.
Private businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from paying for leave related to child care if they can prove it would put them out of business, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This should be tough to prove, though, because the IRS is providing a dollar-for-dollar refund in the form of a quarterly tax credit, and letting businesses apply to receive the credit in advance, to cover the cost of leave.
Health care and emergency organizations can exclude employees from FMLA expansion due to the crisis response.
Public-sector employers subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act, regardless of number of employees, are subject to the new requirements. Most federal employees are already covered by the existing Family Medical Leave Act, so they aren’t covered by expanded FMLA under the new law — but are covered for paid sick leave.
Read what the IRS says about how self-employed workers can access the new leave benefits.
If you’re self-employed, including freelancers and gig workers, you can claim a tax credit for the same benefits. To benefit from the credit before you file your 2020 tax return next year, subtract the credit from your estimated quarterly income tax payments this year.
What Qualifies as Coronavirus-Related Leave?
The reasons to qualify for paid leave under the new law are pretty broad. You have to be unable to work — including remote work — because of COVID-19, which includes:
- Quarantine and isolation orders: You’re subject to an order from your federal, state or local government requiring or urging you to stay home or self-isolate to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This could apply if your state is under a stay-at-home order, your place of work isn’t deemed essential and you can’t work from home; or if you travel into a state or city that requires a 14-day quarantine and can’t work while quarantined, for example.
- Health care advisory: A health care provider has advised you to self-quarantine due to COVID-19.
- COVID-19 symptoms: You’re experiencing symptoms, which the CDC lists as fever, cough, shortness of breath or all three, and seeking a medical diagnosis.
- Caring for someone: You’re caring for someone who is subject to a quarantine or isolation order from the government or advisory from a health care provider.
- Your kids are out of school or daycare: You’re caring for your children whose school or childcare is closed or unavailable. This doesn’t apply if you’re caring for anyone else’s children.
- Similar conditions: You’re experiencing what the U.S. Department of Labor calls “any other substantially similar condition specified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”
Having no work available from your employer for an eligible reason counts as being unable to work.
Here’s What You’re Entitled to Under FFCRA
If you’re eligible for expanded paid leave, you can receive up to 12 weeks’ paid leave total. The amount of pay depends on what you earn when you’re working and the reason you take leave.
2 Weeks’ Paid Sick Leave
For paid sick leave, you can get two weeks — 80 hours for full-time employees or your average hours for part-timers — at these rates:
- 100% pay, up to $511 daily, if you’re out for quarantine, isolation or COVID-19 symptoms.
- Two-thirds pay, up to $200 daily, if you’re out to care for a child or someone who is quarantined or experiencing symptoms.
10 Weeks’ Paid Family Medical Leave
If you’re caring for your kids who are out of school or child care because of the coronavirus crisis, you can receive 10 additional weeks under expanded FMLA, paid at two-thirds your normal wages.
How to Claim Paid Sick Leave for Coronavirus
You won’t have to deal with a government office to claim paid sick leave.
Instead, your employer will handle the leave under normal payroll. If you haven’t gotten clear direction from someone at your company about how to request paid time off for coronavirus-related reasons, reach out to your manager or someone in HR for details.
Be prepared for some disorganization, though, as companies work to understand the requirements and quickly incorporate new benefits into their systems.
If you experience delays or outright refusal of benefits you’re entitled to, contact your local DOL Wage and Hour Division, the agency responsible for enforcing the new requirements. Someone there should be able to offer guidance on your entitlements and a course of action.
What If Your Employer Is Exempt?
The 500-employee cap on the paid leave requirement was a compromise among legislators when the House of Representatives was drafting the bill, CNN reported at the time.
The good news is 89% of employees who work for an exempt employer already have access to some paid sick leave, according to CNN. The bad news is 6.7 million workers make up the 11% who did not.
Companies Offering Coronavirus Paid Leave
To narrow the gap, some large companies have created or amended sick leave policies to grant paid leave to hundreds of thousands more hourly workers. They include Amazon, Apple, Bloomin’ Brands (Outback Steakhouse), Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden), McDonald’s, Starbucks, Target, and Walmart and Sam’s Club.
New York state enacted its own legislation last month requiring all employers in the state to provide paid sick leave of five or 14 days, depending on the size and revenue of the employer.
Aside from special coronavirus-related provisions, 12 states and Washington, D.C., require employers to offer paid sick leave. None of these states exempts large companies from the requirement, so you could be eligible at least for the amount of paid leave your state mandates.
California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington provide for paid family medical leave, and Washington, D.C., enacted a measure a couple years ago set to take effect on July 1.
If You Can’t Get Paid Sick Leave
If you’re not eligible for paid time off and are unable to work, consider filing for unemployment benefits. Under recent legislation, you might be eligible if you quit your job for coronavirus-related reasons, including contracting the virus or caring for someone who is sick.
Under the regular Family Medical Leave Act, your job should be secure if you have to take time off to care for a family member or your own health condition, even though you aren’t paid while out from work. FMLA requires private employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks’ unpaid leave.
A Modest Needs Self-Sufficiency grant might be available to help you cover living expenses if you’re tight on cash. To get groceries, you can find a local food bank through Feeding America’s nationwide network.
If you’re well and have the time, you could always try to make some money online while you’re home on sick leave.
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) has been writing and editing since 2011, covering personal finance, careers and digital media.