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Judge rules against Labor Department over pandemic leave

Department of Labor

A federal district judge has issued a ruling that removes limits as to employees taking leave if there is no work available under a regulation issued by the Department of Labor under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

The ruling by Judge J. Paul Oetken of the U.S. District Court in New York in State of New York v. United States Department of Labor et al., issued Monday, was in response to a lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General’s office shortly after the FFCRA’s final regulation was issued. 

Both sides had moved for summary judgment in the case.

Experts say it is unclear whether the ruling applies only to New York or nationally. It may also be appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. A DOL spokesman could not be reached for comment.

The FFCRA, which took effect April 1 and is set to expire Dec. 31, requires employers to give employees paid emergency family and medical leave and emergency paid sick leave. It covers private employers with fewer than 500 employees and certain other employers. Employers are given a payroll tax credit for paid leave provided under the act.

The decision, which holds New York has standing to file suit, concludes that the final regulation with respect to the issue of whether employees can be denied leave under certain circumstances if there is no work available “exceeds the [DOL’s] authority under the statute.”

The agency’s “barebones explanation for the work-availability requirement is patently deficient,” the ruling states. “The requirement, as an exercise of the agency’s delegated authority, is an enormously consequential determination that may considerably narrow the state’s potential scope,” the ruling states.

 It says also that the final rule’s definition of a health care provider, under a provision that excludes health care providers from having to provide leave benefits, is too broad.

Under the final rule, the definition applies to anyone employed at any doctor’s office, hospital, health care center, clinic or post-secondary educational institution that offers health care instruction, among others.

“The definition, needless to say, is expansive. DOL concedes that an English professor, librarian, or cafeteria manager at a university with a medical school could all be ‘health care providers’ under the Rule,” it states.

The agency’s definition “hinges entirely on the identity of the employer in that it applies to anyone employed at or by certain classes of employers rather than the skills, roles, duties, or capabilities of a class of employee,” it states.

The ruling also objects to the final rule’s documentation requirements. A blanket regulation requirement “that an employee furnish documentation before taking leave renders the (statutory) notice exception for unforeseeable leave and the statutory one-day delay for paid sick leave notice completely nugatory,” it states.

The ruling, however, does agree with the DOL’s interpretation of the statute insofar as prohibition of intermittent leave is concerned. “This time, the language of the regulation favors DOL’s view,” it states.

New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement that the ruling “is an important win for the workers who are putting their health and their lives on the line as COVID-19 rages on.

“In these uncertain times, individuals throughout New York and across the country are relying on the very paid benefits that the Trump Administration is trying to keep them from claiming.”

More insurance and risk management news on the coronavirus crisis here.