(This post originally appeared on Philly.com)
School officials in the area are taking different approaches to the new year as a result of the pandemic. Some, such as the Philadelphia School District and suburban districts such as Lower Merion and West Chester, plan to start online. Other school districts, including many in New Jersey, along with many private and Catholic schools, are allowing students to come to class with online streaming options available.
It’s complicated and divisive. And, unfortunately, these decisions are creating headaches for many parents who are trying to juggle their own busy work schedules.
But it’s not just the parents who are affected. Countless small businesses are facing a potential costly dilemma as they, too, try to accommodate their employees.
That’s because, regardless of the size of your business, you’re required to be in compliance with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), the law passed at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. It requires employers to pay an employee’s compensation for having to miss work to care for a child whose school is closed due to COVID-19.
How much could this cost a small business? A lot, potentially.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employees would be entitled to up to 12 weeks of paid sick leave at two-thirds of their regular rate of pay if they’re “unable to work because of a bona fide need to care for a child (under 18 years of age) whose school or child care provider is closed or unavailable for reasons related to COVID-19.” Besides the out-of-pocket cost (which might be recouped through a tax credit when filing this year’s returns), the loss of these employees could be extremely disruptive.
So will this fall’s school schedules affect your business? Now is the time to find out. “We are recommending that employers proactively reach out to their employees to assess their needs and challenges,” said David Hackett, a labor and employment lawyer in Philadelphia for Cozen O’Connor. “Potential changes can include changes to work hours or days, reassignment, paid or unpaid leave, child care stipends, and many other creative solutions.”
Hackett recommends that employers should be “engaging their employees now” with questionnaires, surveys, and internal meetings to assess their needs and evaluate what options can be implemented. “Employers need to be flexible in coming up with solutions to address their employees’ child-care needs due to the schooling in the new normal while still accomplishing their business needs and goals,” he said.
One big issue for a small-business owner in complying with the FFCRA is fairness. In addition to the law and similar state statutes passed to address COVID-19-related absences, Hackett advises employers to ensure that, as they make child-care accommodations, they must treat similarly situated employees the same. Your business needs to have a written policy for when an employee needs time off related to school schedules and it needs to be applied consistently. No one should be receiving an unequal level of time off or compensation, and if your employee purchases items to conduct business from home, you may be obligated to reimburse the employee for this business-related expense.
Employer accommodations to assist employees with child-care needs could also be taken as evidence of what reasonable accommodations an employer should be taking in order to be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar state and local laws he says.
Not all employees may qualify for this leave. For example, an employee would not be entitled to FFCRA leave if the child’s school is open, but the family decides to home school their child. According to current guidance from the Department of Labor, intermittent leave could be utilized in such a scenario only if the employer agrees to permit such intermittent leave.
But as a small-business owner and employer, do you want to have this fight? Most experts, including Hackett, agree that even the smallest of employers should be doing their best to assist employees to meet their parental needs in this challenging time. Doing otherwise not only opens up your business to a potential lawsuit, but can also create a negative environment in the office and poor relations with your staff. Because let’s face it: Most parents haven’t had to deal with the challenges that today’s parents are dealing with because of the pandemic.
The more you can do to help an employee navigate through these problems today, the better off you both will be in the long run.