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Opinion: New developments for employers to watch on COVID-19

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From the Biden administration’s elimination of the worker visa ban to protections for federal contractors and employees related to COVID-19 vaccines and tests, there are many new developments employers must be watching.

The newly passed American Rescue Plan Act extends federally subsidized unemployment benefits, provides complete subsidized COBRA health insurance coverage, and allows for voluntary compliance and tax credits under the revised Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Visa ban eliminated
The Biden administration will not extend the ban forbidding issuance of new temporary L-1, intracompany transferee; H-1B, specialty occupation; H-2B, nonagricultural worker; and J-1, trainee, au pair or intern, visas for people outside of the United States.

Public Readiness Emergency Act
The administration amended the Public Readiness Emergency Act to allow liability protections for federal contractors, staff and volunteers from people experiencing any loss from COVID-19 vaccines and tests. Before, only covered persons were immune, such as manufacturers, distributors and program planners.

American Rescue Plan Act of 2021
The changes effective last month to ARPA impacts COBRA, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and unemployment compensation benefits. Employers must offer 100% ARPA subsidized Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act continuation coverage for six months to laborers and COBRA-qualified dependents between April 1 and Sept. 30. Employers will be fully reimbursed for all premiums they pay through a tax credit. Employees must be involuntarily terminated for reasons other than gross misconduct. The ARPA consists of myriad caveats that enterprises will need to review in order to ensure compliance.

The ARPA allows businesses originally covered under the FFCRA to voluntarily replenish the 80 hours of paid leave under the Emergency Paid Sick Leave. Companies may claim tax credits for leave taken April 1 through Sept. 30. This new amount of leave applies to team members who have taken some or all of their original leave entitlement under the FFCRA. Unused leave before March 31 is forfeited.

The ARPA permits three additional reasons an employee may take EPSL. First, to obtain a COVID-19 vaccination. Second, to recover from an injury, disability, illness or condition related to the vaccination. Third, to wait for the result of a diagnostic test or medical diagnosis of COVID-19 due to COVID-19 exposure or because the employer requested the worker to get a COVID-19 test or diagnosis. All of the new reasons will be subject to the higher cap of 100% of salary or $511 per day.

The ARPA grants an additional tax credit for wages paid as qualified Emergency Family Medical Leave taken during the new time period. The number of weeks off are increased from 10 to 12, which in turn increases the total amount of wages eligible for the tax credit. The ARPA expands the EFMLA to include not only time off to care for a child due to the closure of the child’s school or day care but also for all of the same reasons as the EPSL. The EFMLA rate of pay remains at two-thirds of the associate’s regular rate of pay, up to $200 per day, regardless of the reason for the leave. However, because the number of weeks increased under the ARPA, the maximum tax credit of $10,000 per person has been increased to $12,000.

The corporation is able to offer both paid leave options or may choose to offer just one.

Unemployment assistance
The ARPA extends availability of pandemic unemployment assistance through Sept. 6. Qualifying individuals will continue to receive $300 per week in addition to the unemployment funds received from the applicable state system. The length of time is extended to 79 weeks from 26.

Lynne Haggerman holds a master of science in industrial organizational psychology and is president/owner of Lynne Haggerman & Associates LLC, specializing in management training, retained search, outplacement and human resource consulting. She can be reached at lynne@lynnehaggerman.com.

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