Federal Law Updates: December 2020

Five Federal along with D.C and seven State Law Updates have been issued.  Our HR Advisors are versed and ready to answer your toughest HR questions to help your company through working remotely, coming back to work and all year long.

December 2020 Law Alert Map

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Labor Law Updates for December 2020

1

Pandemic Relief

President Trump signs the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act applicable to COVID-19 or another coronavirus with pandemic potential.

On December 27, 2020, President Donald Trump signed the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act (US H 133) containing the 2021 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act applicable to SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) or another coronavirus with pandemic potential. Generally, the act:

  • Extends some Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) economic assistance. For instance: 
    • Reinstatement of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) in the amount of $300 for weeks of unemployment beginning after December 26, 2020 through March 14, 2021.
    • Extension and modification of temporary Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) through March 14, 2021 and phasing out on April 5, 2021. The phasing out is for those individuals who remain eligible after March 14, 2021 and have not exhausted their maximum benefits entitlement. However, under the act, no PUA benefits can be paid after April 5.
    • Extension of employee retention tax credit to wages paid before July 1, 2021.
    • Expansion and continuation of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
  • Allows employers to continue taking tax credits for qualifying paid sick and family leave under the Federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) through March 14, 2021. However, beginning January 1, 2021, employers are not required to provide employees with paid FFCRA leave.

Specific to the FFCRA:

  • Beginning January 1, 2021, employers are not required to provide employees with paid FFCRA leave, which includes both COVID-related emergency paid sick leave (EPSL) and emergency family and medical leave (EFMLA). However, employees may still be entitled to paid sick leave or emergency COVID leave under state or local law.
  • For employers that voluntarily provide paid sick and family and medical leave that would have otherwise qualified as FFCRA leave: 
    • Federal payroll tax credits are extended through March 31, 2021 (if the individual did not exhaust their maximum FFCRA leave allotment and the leave did not expire on December 31, 2020).
    • Employees do not get a new bank of FFCRA hours in 2021 – the amount they have available on January 1, 2021 is how much they can use through March 31, 2021. There is a possible exception if employers use the calendar year or another fixed FMLA tracking period that starts before March 31, 2021.

The IRS and DOL will soon provide more information and detailed guidance on the act’s implementation.

2

IRS Issues 2021 Standard Mileage Rates

The IRS released the 2021 optional standard mileage rates.

On December 22, 2020, the Internal Revenue Service released Notice 2021-02 with the 2021 optional standard mileage rates for taxpayers to use to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business, charitable, medical, or moving purpose. Beginning on January 1, 2021, the standard mileage rates for the use of a car (also vans, pickups, or panel trucks) will be:

  • 56 cents per mile driven for business use;
  • 16 cents per mile driven for medical, or moving purposes for qualified active duty members of the Armed Forces; and
  • 14 cents per mile driven in service of charitable organizations, which is unchanged from 2020.

The notice also provides that:

  • The maximum standard automobile cost to compute the allowance under a fixed and variable rate plan (FAVR plan) may not exceed $51,100 for automobiles (including trucks and vans)l; and
  • The maximum fair market value of employer-provided automobiles for the fleet-average valuation rule and the vehicle cents-per-mile valuation rule (including trucks and vans) first made available to employees in calendar year 2021 is $51,100.

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3

EEOC COVID-19 Guidance and Vaccines

U.S. EEOC updated its “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws”.

On December 16, 2020, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) updated its “What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Lawspublication by including:

  • A new section for employers and employees about how a COVID-19 vaccination interacts with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).
  • Information about medical pre-screening questions and employer accommodations for those unable to receive a vaccination.

These new sections are provided below and are directly from the publication.

ADA and Vaccinations

K.1. For any COVID-19 vaccine that has been approved or authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine to an employee by an employer (or by a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) a “medical examination” for purposes of the ADA? (12/16/20)

No.  The vaccination itself is not a medical examination.  As the Commission explained in guidance on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations, a medical examination is “a procedure or test usually given by a health care professional or in a medical setting that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health.”  Examples include “vision tests; blood, urine, and breath analyses; blood pressure screening and cholesterol testing; and diagnostic procedures, such as x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs.”  If a vaccine is administered to an employee by an employer for protection against contracting COVID-19, the employer is not seeking information about an individual’s impairments or current health status and, therefore, it is not a medical examination.

Although the administration of a vaccination is not a medical examination, pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA’s provision on disability-related inquiries, which are inquiries likely to elicit information about a disability.  If the employer administers the vaccine, it must show that such pre-screening questions it asks employees are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  

K.2. According to the CDC, health care providers should ask certain questions before administering a vaccine to ensure that there is no medical reason that would prevent the person from receiving the vaccination. If the employer requires an employee to receive the vaccination from the employer (or a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) and asks these screening questions, are these questions subject to the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries? (12/16/20)

Yes. Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about a disability. This means that such questions, if asked by the employer or a contractor on the employer’s behalf, are “disability-related” under the ADA. Thus, if the employer requires an employee to receive the vaccination, administered by the employer, the employer must show that these disability-related screening inquiries are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  To meet this standard, an employer would need to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, does not receive a vaccination, will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of her or himself or others. 

By contrast, there are two circumstances in which disability-related screening questions can be asked without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement. First, if an employer has offered a vaccination to employees on a voluntary basis (i.e. employees choose whether to be vaccinated), the ADA requires that the employee’s decision to answer pre-screening, disability-related questions also must be voluntary. If an employee chooses not to answer these questions, the employer may decline to administer the vaccine but may not retaliate against, intimidate, or threaten the employee for refusing to answer any questions. Second, if an employee receives an employer-required vaccination from a third party that does not have a contract with the employer, such as a pharmacy or other health care provider, the ADA “job-related and consistent with business necessity” restrictions on disability-related inquiries would not apply to the pre-vaccination medical screening questions.  

The ADA requires employers to keep any employee medical information obtained in the course of the vaccination program confidential.

K.3. Is asking or requiring an employee to show proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination a disability-related inquiry? (12/16/20)

No. There are many reasons that may explain why an employee has not been vaccinated, which may or may not be disability-related. Simply requesting proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry. However, subsequent employer questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that they be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA.

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ADA and Title VII Issues Regarding Mandatory Vaccinations

K.4. Where can employers learn more about Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA) of COVID-19 vaccines? (12/16/20)

Some COVID-19 vaccines may only be available to the public for the foreseeable future under EUA granted by the FDA, which is different than approval under FDA vaccine licensure. The FDA has an obligation to:

[E]nsure that recipients of the vaccine under an EUA are informed, to the extent practicable under the applicable circumstances, that FDA has authorized the emergency use of the vaccine, of the known and potential benefits and risks, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, that they have the option to accept or refuse the vaccine, and of any available alternatives to the product.

The FDA says that this information is typically conveyed in a patient fact sheet that is provided at the time of the vaccine administration and that it posts the fact sheets on its website. More information about EUA vaccines is available on the FDA’s EUA page

K.5. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability? (12/16/20)

The ADA allows an employer to have a qualification standard that includes “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.” However, if a safety-based qualification standard, such as a vaccination requirement, screens out or tends to screen out an individual with a disability, the employer must show that an unvaccinated employee would pose a direct threat due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.” Employers should conduct an individualized assessment of four factors in determining whether a direct threat exists: the duration of the risk; the nature and severity of the potential harm; the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and the imminence of the potential harm. A conclusion that there is a direct threat would include a determination that an unvaccinated individual will expose others to the virus at the worksite.  If an employer determines that an individual who cannot be vaccinated due to disability poses a direct threat at the worksite, the employer cannot exclude the employee from the workplace, or take any other action, unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce this risk so the unvaccinated employee does not pose a direct threat.

If there is a direct threat that cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, the employer can exclude the employee from physically entering the workplace, but this does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker. Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities. For example, if an employer excludes an employee based on an inability to accommodate a request to be exempt from a vaccination requirement, the employee may be entitled to accommodations such as performing the current position remotely. This is the same step that employers take when physically excluding employees from a worksite due to a current COVID-19 diagnosis or symptoms; some workers may be entitled to telework or, if not, may be eligible to take leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, under the FMLA, or under the employer’s policies.

Managers and supervisors responsible for communicating with employees about compliance with the employer’s vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an accommodation request from an employee with a disability and know to whom the request should be referred for consideration. Employers and employees should engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position. The prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination and the amount of contact with others, whose vaccination status could be unknown, may impact the undue hardship consideration. In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees also may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website as a resource for different types of accommodations. JAN’s materials specific to COVID-19 are at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm.  

Employers may rely on CDC recommendations when deciding whether an effective accommodation that would not pose an undue hardship is available, but as explained further in Question K.7., there may be situations where an accommodation is not possible. When an employer makes this decision, the facts about particular job duties and workplaces may be relevant. Employers also should consult applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards and guidance. Employers can find OSHA COVID-specific resources at: www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/.

Managers and supervisors are reminded that it is unlawful to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation or retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation.

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K.6. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)

Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from receiving the vaccination, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for the religious belief, practice, or observance unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Courts have defined “undue hardship” under Title VII as having more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer. EEOC guidance explains that because the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief.  If, however, an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information.

K.7. What happens if an employer cannot exempt or provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who cannot comply with a mandatory vaccine policy because of a disability or sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)

If an employee cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, and there is no reasonable accommodation possible, then it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace.  This does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker.  Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities.

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Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and Vaccinations

K.8. Is Title II of GINA implicated when an employer administers a COVID-19 vaccine to employees or requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination? (12/16/20)

No. Administering a COVID-19 vaccination to employees or requiring employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination does not implicate Title II of GINA because it does not involve the use of genetic information to make employment decisions, or the acquisition or disclosure of “genetic information” as defined by the statute. This includes vaccinations that use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which will be discussed more below. As noted in Question K.9. however, if administration of the vaccine requires pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, the inquiries seeking genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories, may violate GINA.

Under Title II of GINA, employers may not (1) use genetic information to make decisions related to the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, (2) acquire genetic information except in six narrow circumstances, or (3) disclose genetic information except in six narrow circumstances. 

Certain COVID-19 vaccines use mRNA technology. This raises questions about genetics and, specifically, about whether such vaccines modify a recipient’s genetic makeup and, therefore, whether requiring an employee to get the vaccine as a condition of employment is an unlawful use of genetic information. The CDC has explained that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “do not interact with our DNA in any way” and “mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.” (See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mrna.html for a detailed discussion about how mRNA vaccines work).  Thus, requiring employees to get the vaccine, whether it uses mRNA technology or not, does not violate GINA’s prohibitions on using, acquiring, or disclosing genetic information.

K.9. Does asking an employee the pre-vaccination screening questions before administering a COVID-19 vaccine implicate Title II of GINA? (12/16/20)

Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about disability, as discussed in Question K.2., and may elicit information about genetic information, such as questions regarding the immune systems of family members.  It is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations.

GINA defines “genetic information” to mean: 

  • Information about an individual’s genetic tests;
  • Information about the genetic tests of a family member;
  • Information about the manifestation of disease or disorder in a family member (i.e., family medical history);
  • Information about requests for, or receipt of, genetic services or the participation in clinical research that includes genetic services by the an individual or a family member of the individual; and
  • Genetic information about a fetus carried by an individual or family member or of an embryo legally held by an individual or family member using assisted reproductive technology.

If the pre-vaccination questions do not include any questions about genetic information (including family medical history), then asking them does not implicate GINA. However, if the pre-vaccination questions do include questions about genetic information, then employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves. 

GINA does not prohibit an individual employee’s own health care provider from asking questions about genetic information, but it does prohibit an employer or a doctor working for the employer from asking questions about genetic information. If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof. As long as this warning is provided, any genetic information the employer receives in response to its request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and therefore not unlawful under GINA.  See 29 CFR 1635.8(b)(1)(i) for model language that can be used for this warning.

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4

CDC, COVID-19, and Options to Reduce Quarantine

U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its COVID-19 quarantine options by suggesting quarantine periods shorter than 14-days.

On December 2, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated its COVID-19 quarantine options by suggesting quarantine periods shorter than 14-days. This is because a 14-day quarantine can impose personal burdens that may affect physical and mental health as well as cause economic hardship that may reduce compliance. Therefore, based on local circumstances and resources, the CDC offers the following options as acceptable alternatives to shorten quarantine:

  • Quarantine can end after ten days without testing and if no symptoms have been reported during daily monitoring.
  • When diagnostic testing resources are sufficient and available, then quarantine can end after seven days if a diagnostic specimen tests negative and if no symptoms were reported during daily monitoring. The specimen may be collected and tested 48 hours before ending quarantine (for instance, in anticipation of testing delays) but quarantine cannot end earlier than after seven days.

5

New Opinion Letters Addressing FLSA

DOL announces new opinion letters addressing compliance related to FLSA.

On November 30, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released the following new opinion letters addressing Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) compliance:

  • FLSA2020-17: Addressing whether an employee’s regular rate of pay, who is paid on a piece-rate basis, may be calculated by dividing total earnings by the number of productive and nonproductive hours worked during the workweek in the absence of a specific agreement with the employee to use such calculation.
  • FLSA2020-18: Addressing whether insect farming qualifies as agriculture under the FLSA and whether certain workers employed by an insect farming operation may be exempt from overtime pay requirements.

An opinion letter is an official, written opinion by the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) on how a particular law applies in specific circumstances presented by the person or entity that requested the letter.

Individual state labor laws

State Specific Labor Law Updates:

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