A New York federal court has struck down a United States Department of Labor (DOL) rule that limited who could benefit from a law that granted paid leave due to the coronavirus. The court stated the DOL overstepped its authority by issuing the limitation and said that there was no basis in law for the rule it issued. Additionally, it struck down an interpretation of the law that expanded an exception for “health care providers,” and partially vacated other interpretations of the law which limited people’s ability to take time off.
The case in question revolved around the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA), a law that initially took effect on April 1, 2020. Among a variety of other measures, the law granted two weeks of paid sick leave for workers who suffered from symptoms related to the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. It also expanded family and medical leave for workers whose family members became ill with COVID-19 or who were quarantined due to coronavirus exposure, and added up to ten weeks of leave for people whose school or child care provider is closed due to reasons related to COVID-19.
However, there were several exceptions written into the law, most notably carving out an exception for “health care providers,” and “emergency responders.” As written, this includes doctors, nurses, lab technicians, ambulance drivers, EMTs, pharmacists, and others who work in the medical profession. However, the Department of Labor expanded the meaning of “health care providers” to include “any entity that provides medical services, produces medical products, or is otherwise involved in the making of COVID-19 related medical equipment, tests, drugs, vaccines, diagnostic vehicles or treatments.”
A lawsuit, filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James, specifically contested that interpretation of the phrase “health care providers,” as it alleged that the definition of what constituted a health care provider under the law was overly broad. For example, as written, not only would those who worked at a hospital be exempted from the leave law, but so would anyone who worked at a company that processed billing or payments for the hospital, anyone who catered for the hospital, or anyone “otherwise involved” in the hospital’s operations. This, the court said, was overly broad, and an inappropriate exercise of the DOL’s authority.
Three other provisions were contested: the first denied benefits to employees whose employers “did not have work for them;” the second was a rule limiting employee’s rights to take intermittent leave; and the third was the imposition of documentation requirements not found in the FFCRA.
- In the first provision, the DOL said the “work availability” exclusion was illegal because there were six specific conditions listed for when people could take leave when they could not work due to coronavirus-related reasons, and lacking work was not one of them.
- In the second provision, workers could only take intermittent leave only when they do not pose an infection risk, and the only when both the worker and employer have agreed to allowing intermittent leave. While restricting leave when someone poses an infection risk is reasonable, requiring employer consent to take leave is not, and there was no basis in the FFCRA for justifying such a rule.
- In the third provision, the DOL required employees to provide documentation justifying their need to take leave before they can do so. However, this was struck down as well, again due to a lack of legal or factual justification for the rule. The purpose of the FFCRA is to protect public health, which is harder to do when people cannot take time off to even confirm if they have the coronavirus, after all.
In all, the lawsuit was a win for employees, who will be able to take full advantage of the FFCRA’s paid leave provisions. While the courts are often deferential to administrative agencies like the DOL, that deference has its limitations. Here, the court said, the DOL “vastly overstepped” its boundaries, going outside the law to unnecessarily restrict protections the DOL was meant to enforce.
If you have gotten into a legal dispute with your employer, it is important that you seek the guidance of an experienced New York employment lawyer who can protect your legal rights and advocate on your behalf. Steven Mitchell Sack, the Employee’s Lawyer, is a New York employment lawyer with more than 39 years of experience handling the many aspects of employment law. To schedule an appointment with New York employment lawyer Steven Mitchell Sack, call (917) 371-8000.