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Parents: You may qualify for three months of paid leave during the pandemic

caption: A portion of a playground is off limits and surrounded by caution taped on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at Seward Park in Seattle.
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A portion of a playground is off limits and surrounded by caution taped on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at Seward Park in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

If you’re home caring for your children due to school or child care closures related to Covid-19, you may qualify for 12 weeks of leave from work under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act: two weeks of unpaid leave, for which sick leave or vacation time can be used, then 10 weeks of leave at two-thirds of your usual pay.

Congress expanded the Family and Medical Leave Act on March 18 to cover working parents during Covid-19 closures through the end of the calendar year. The expanded leave law flew under the radar for many parents, however, as they scrambled to reconfigure their work and child care plans.

With an employer’s approval, the leave can also be intermittent - for instance, certain hours or days each week, or a month now and then a month in the fall.

“It may be a fairly large deal for the section of the population with small kids at home right now, and having to juggle those responsibilities along with work - or trying to work,” said Karin D. Jones, a partner at Stoel Rives in the Labor & Employment practice group in Seattle.

Jones explained how some details of the new leave policy work.

Which employers have to provide this paid leave?

Pretty much all public employers, as well as private employers with fewer than 500 employees. There is a possible exemption for companies that have fewer than 50 employees if it's going to negatively impact their ability to keep operations going.

Federal employees are exempt, as well. Health care workers can be exempted at the option of the employer, so the employer can offer the leave to health care workers, but can choose not to do so. I think the rationale behind that is of course, they're much-needed during this time.

Can you take the leave if you’ve already taken all of your FMLA this year - say, if you were caring for a new baby?

If you have already used 12 weeks of regular FMLA for the traditional reasons, then you would not have additional leave on top of that.

What is the window for taking this leave?

It had an effective date of April 1, but employers were given a bit of a grace period to implement it. So more strict enforcement is finally kicking in here in May. [The leave must conclude by December 31st of this year.]

Does the expanded leave apply to caring for other people, like elderly family members?

It is for only one purpose, and that is to care for your minor child whose school or childcare provider is close due to Covid-19.

What benefits did the Families First Coronavirus Response Act extend to other workers, including those without kids at home?

You have up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick leave under the FFCRA. One of the reasons you can take that is to care for your children. You can use that [sick leave] during the first two unpaid weeks of the expanded FMLA, as well as if you are ill, if you’re quarantined due to a doctor’s order or government order, or if you’re caring for someone who’s quarantined.

Interestingly, it doesn't cover you if you're caring for somebody who's sick with Covid, but that could be covered under regular FMLA or sick leave.

How expensive is this act for employers?

[Private sector] employers actually are able to claim a tax credit later against their payroll taxes for any amounts they pay out under the FFCRA, so it ends up being a wash for the employer. It's just a bit of a delay in when they'll get that reimbursement.

Are parents of school-aged children allowed to take this leave outside of the school year?

A lot of folks have kids who would otherwise be in some sort of daycare, camp or childcare situation over the summer months. If those are closed down, they can still take this expanded leave during the summer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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