By Kaitlyn Dunphy, Esq.
With the COVID-19 vaccine widely available, leave options for reasons related to COVID-19 will look different this school year. Changes to federal leave laws associated with the pandemic and the return to in-person instruction will also affect how, when and why a leave may be taken to accommodate a disability, an illness, a quarantine requirement, or child care or other caregiving obligations. While mandatory federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) leave expired at the end of 2020, other leave options remain, including expansions of the New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA).
Members who have a disability as defined by federal and state anti-discrimination laws may request a reasonable accommodation from their employer, which may include remote work. But they will more likely include other accommodations, such as layered mitigation measures. Members can also request a disability leave of definite duration, for example a leave until they are able to be fully vaccinated. Whether the employer has an obligation to grant these requests will depend upon individual circumstances.
For members who become infected with COVID-19 or who need to quarantine because of exposure, use of accrued paid sick leave for their own illness or to quarantine will be the most common option. If they are able to work, the member may first seek to arrange remote work with the employer to avoid using accrued time, but it is voluntary for the employer to agree. Such agreement may be harder to achieve than last year given the state’s requirement that schools return to in-person instruction in September of 2021. Similarly, employers may voluntarily offer FFCRA leave, and may be entitled to certain tax credits for doing so. Locals may also seek to negotiate the use of sick leave bank days for quarantine purposes. If an individual has exhausted sick leave, or their employer is not permitting them to utilize accrued sick leave, and one of the options above has not been successful, they should seek assistance from their NJEA UniServ field representative.
Certain unpaid family leave options remain available under the NJFLA while the state of emergency continues to be in place1. Family leave is available to those who need to care for their children if their child’s school or daycare is unavailable because of COVID-related closures. For example, if the child’s school is closed for in-person instruction and switched to remote because of the need to quarantine, this leave would be available if the individual needs to care for their child during the closure. It should be noted that this expansion of NJFLA does not afford members any additional leave time beyond the 12 weeks of leave allotted in a 24-month period. Depending upon the contract or past practice in the workplace, some members may have already exhausted their 12 weeks if they have previously used leaves under FFCRA, FMLA, or NJFLA leave. Family leave insurance benefit payments are not available to people on this type of leave.
While the state of emergency continues, NJFLA has been expanded to cover leaves taken to care for a family member when the family member is either directed by a public health authority or advised by a health care provider to quarantine because of illness or known or suspected exposure. Family leave insurance benefits were expanded to cover leaves to care for a family member who is quarantining, so partial payment can be applied for during this leave through the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development. For more information on these benefits, you should visit myleavebenefits.nj.gov/worker/fli.
While leave options can seem daunting and subject to changes in applicable law, NJEA staff stand ready to assist members in navigating those options and advocating for members’ needs.
1At the time of publication, the state of emergency was still in effect in the state of New Jersey. Once the state of emergency is lifted, these expanded NJFLA leave options will no longer be available.
Kaitlyn Dunphy is an associate director of NJEA Legal Services and Member Rights in the NJEA Executive Office. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.