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What Connecticut Workers Need to Know About COVID-19

March 24, 2020

Thousands of workers in Connecticut have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses have been ordered to temporarily close or limit their hours to help curtail virus spread. Some workers have grown ill themselves. While others have become caregivers for infected family members and teachers for their children whose schools have closed. For far too many, a dramatic change in weekly income can mean the difference between making ends meet and not being able to, putting a family’s health at even greater risk.

As federal and state officials implement different forms of relief for the nation’s workforce, Yale School of Public Health Assistant Clinical Professor Shelley Geballe, JD ’76, MPH ’95, has been monitoring events closely. Geballe, a longstanding civil rights attorney, legislative advocate and clinical lecturer at Yale Law School, shares some important information Connecticut workers need to know in this report. (Editor’s note: This report was compiled on March 23. Details may change. Visit Connecticut’s coronavirus website for the latest information.)

What types of benefits might be available to me if I’m out of work, sick, or needing to care for others right now? 

S.G.: Depending on your specific situation, you may be eligible for various levels of these benefits: a) paid sick leave; b) family and medical leave; and c) unemployment insurance.

Because each family’s situation is different, be sure to check with your employer, as well as the agencies running the programs described below, to understand all of the benefits for which you may be eligible.  Know that these benefits are in addition to those your employer may already provide you, any new programs that may emerge, and any relaxing of requirements for existing programs. So, keep checking back.

PAID SICK LEAVE

Am I eligible for paid leave if I’m unable to work due to COVID-19?

S.G.:  Congress passed, and the President signed, an emergency relief package for individuals impacted by COVID-19 pandemic on March 18. One part, the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act, provides paid leave if you are unable to work (including telework) because you are:

a) In federal, state or local quarantine or isolation or a health care provider has advised you to self-quarantine;

b) Experiencing symptoms and are seeking a diagnosis;

c) Caring for someone (and not limited to family members) in quarantine or isolation; or

d) Caring for your child/children whose school is closed or place of care is unavailable due to precautions.

If you are a full-time employee, you can receive 80 hours of paid sick leave beginning April 2. If you are eligible for reasons (a) or (b), payment is at your regular wage, with a maximum payment of $511 per day and $5,110 in total.  If eligible for reasons (c) or (d), payment is at two-thirds your regular wage, with a maximum payment of $200 per day and $2,000 in total.  Sick time under this bill is in addition to any employer-provided paid sick leave or other paid time off you might have.

This new Act is limited in scope. Though it applies to public employers of all sizes, it is limited to private employers with fewer than 500 employees. Larger companies, such as McDonald’s, Walmart and Amazon, are exempt, though some (Walmart, Target) have agreed to offer their employees paid sick leave during this crisis.  In addition, businesses with fewer than 50 employees can seek an exemption from the US Department of Labor if their financial viability is threatened by this requirement.  Of equal concern - the law as now written will expire on Dec. 31.

If you still need leave at the end of two weeks, you may qualify for additional leave under the federal and state family and medical leave laws (see below).  

Can I get paid sick leave if I work part-time? What about if I’m self-employed?

S.G:  The good news is the emergency federal legislation also applies to part-time workers impacted by the coronavirus. Their paid sick leave will be based on the hours they actually work and what they usually earn over a two-week period. People who are self-employed - like plumbers, electricians, musicians, and home improvement contractors – also can get paid leave by calculating their average daily self-employment income for the year, and then claiming the amount of paid leave they take as a tax credit (and they can reduce their estimated quarterly tax payments in the meantime).

How do I actually get this paid leave?

S.G.:  Talk to your supervisor about what your employer is providing in paid sick leave for this coronavirus crisis. For those companies that lack policies for paid sick leave related to this crisis, the U.S. Department of Labor is expected to issue specific guidelines for COVID-19 paid sick leave by April 2. This will help businesses figure out how to compensate their workers under the new federal rules. Know that through refundable tax credits against the employer’s portion of Social Security taxes, your employer will be fully reimbursed by the federal government for the wages paid to you.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Connecticut workers working in firms with 50 or more employees and engaged in providing certain types of services (e.g., food, health, and social services) may be eligible for up to 40 hours per year of accrued paid sick leave under Connecticut law.  This leave is available to help during the worker’s own illness and/or a service worker’s child’s or spouse’s illness. Please check with your supervisor and the CT Department of Labor to see what may be available for you. You can find more details about this and other state benefits, by downloading Connecticut’s Department of Labor COVID-19 information page.

FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE

Is paid sick leave my only option when I can’t work because my kids’ school or place of care is closed because of this public health emergency?

S.G.:  Fortunately, the new federal law has a second section, the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, that creates a temporary new entitlement with modified eligibility requirements.  You can take up to 12 weeks of paid and job-protected emergency leave (family and medical leave is otherwise unpaid under federal law) if you can’t work, including telework, because you must care for a minor child whose school or place of care has closed due to this emergency, and you have worked for at least 30 days for an employer with fewer than 500 employees.  After an initial ten-day period of unpaid leave (now covered as paid sick leave, see above), you can receive two-thirds of your normal wages for the number of hours you are regularly scheduled to work, up to a maximum of $200/day and $10,000 total.  Again, through refundable tax credits against the employer’s portion of Social Security taxes, your employer will be reimbursed by the federal government for 100% of the wages paid to you. Unfortunately, this Act also sunsets on December 31.

If your employer has 25 or more employees, you are entitled to reinstatement to the same or an equivalent position when you come back from your leave.  But if your employer is smaller than this, your right to reinstatement exists so long as your position still exists.  If your position no longer exists, your employer must make reasonable efforts to give you an equivalent position.  Or if there is no equivalent position when you can return to work, your employer must let you know, for at least a year, when such a position does open up.

NOTE: Connecticut also has a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that provides up to 16 weeks of leave in a 24-month period to eligible employees who have a serious health condition or who need to care for certain close relatives (spouse, child, parent, parent-in-law) with a serious health condition.  However, this leave is unpaid and does not cover the need to stay home with children who can’t be in school, but it can provide additional leave time after paid sick leave ends.

You may qualify for Connecticut FMLA support if: you worked for the employer for at least 12 months and 1,000 hours in the past year; your employer is covered for FMLA purposes (75 or more employees in CT), and you have FMLA time available. Your employer may require you to submit a medical certification from your health care provider to determine if you have a serious health condition (as defined by the FMLA). If your health care provider substantiates a serious health condition, you should be protected under FMLA. You also might ask your employer to institute a more lenient medical certification policy given the severity of this current crisis. You can visit this website to learn more about Connecticut’s FMLA provisions.

UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE (UI)

My employer has closed my place of work, hopefully just temporarily, because of the COVID-19 crisis, so I’m out of work.  Can I collect unemployment benefits? 

S.G.: If you are laid off, furloughed for two weeks or more, or are a part-time worker who is working 40% or fewer of your normal hours, you can apply to the CT Department of Labor (CT DOL) for unemployment insurance (UI).  In addition, if you are a school employee who would otherwise be ineligible for unemployment insurance during school breaks and summer vacations, but you were furloughed or laid off because of COVID 19-related school closings, you can be eligible for UI. You also may be eligible for UI if you have contracted the virus and must take time off from work or were fired because you are infected (but only if you are physically able and available for full-time work or, with a physician’s note, available only for part-time work).  If you are only being allowed to work part-time, you may be eligible for partial unemployment benefits. 

It is essential that you file for UI quickly after you become unemployed, both to determine your eligibility for benefits and also to avoid being denied benefits.  Ask your employer for an Unemployment Separation Package, the employer’s registration number, and a “return to work” date, even if the date needs to be extended to later (as this allows DOL to automatically process your application). But do not delay filing if you do not have these; start the filing process.

To file for benefits or get questions answered about your eligibility and benefit levels through a Live Chat, visit this website.  You also can get questions answered by e-mail to: dol.webhelpct.gov, though there may be delay because of high volume. You can find really helpful tips on how to file for faster claims processing here.

Benefits will come quickly once approved. Connecticut is one of just six states with no waiting period to receive benefits.  It also has suspended the UI work search requirements during this crisis.

NOTE: If your employer retaliates against you for filing for UI, you can file a complaint with CT Department of Labor as you have an opportunity for a hearing.

My business has really slowed down as a result of COVID-19. I don’t want to lay any employees off, are there any other options?

S.G.:  The state of Connecticut offers a program called SharedWork, which helps businesses when they are in a situation like yours.  The program allows employers to reduce their full-time employees’ hours by as much as 60 percent. Those workers can then apply for partial unemployment benefits to replace a portion of their lost wages. Employers with two or more full-time or permanent part-time employees can participate in the program.  But to qualify, businesses must reduce work by at least 10 percent and no more than 60 percent.  Visit the SharedWork website to learn more.

SOME OTHER CHALLENGES FACING WORKERS

My work hours were cut because of the coronavirus and I’m behind in my rent.  Can my landlord evict me during this crisis?

S.G.:  In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Connecticut has stopped all new and existing eviction and foreclosure proceedings through March 27. The ban may be extended as the outbreak continues. If you received an eviction notice recently, this means you cannot be forced to leave your premises at this time even if you fall further behind in your rent. You should still abide by your lease terms during this period and try to pay any rent you can when you are able. For more information, call Statewide Legal Services at 800-453-3320.

I’m worried about making this month’s mortgage payment now that my business has slowed, and my income has dropped due to the coronavirus. What will happen if I can’t make a payment?

S.G.: The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHA) on March 18 directed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to suspend all foreclosures for at least 60 days to help borrowers who are at risk of losing their home because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Homeowners with single-family mortgages backed by either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac are eligible. The FHFA has also announced that mortgage payments for such loans are suspended for up to 12 months due to the hardships caused by this coronavirus. Check with your mortgage service officer directly to discuss your options.

My employer doesn’t offer health insurance and I don’t have any. I want to get health insurance now because of this outbreak.  What can I do?

S.G.:  You can get affordable health insurance through Access Health CT, the state’s health insurance marketplace. Starting March 19, state officials announced that any Connecticut resident who lacks health insurance can apply through a special enrollment period.  New enrollment is open from March 19 through April 2 and coverage will begin on April 1. To enroll during this special enrollment period, call 855-365-2428 (TTY: 1-855-789-2428).  Telephone enrollment is available Mondays through Fridays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. You can find more information about the new open enrollment period on the Access Health CT website.

Individuals who experience a “qualifying life event (e.g. loss of coverage due to job change, birth of a child, unemployment) or have lower income and so could qualify for Medicaid/Children’s Health Program (CHIP), can always enroll online, in-person or over the phone and all help is free. Go the Access Health CT website.

I’m also worried about paying my utility bills!  What can I do?

S.G.: Don’t worry. Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) placed a moratorium on all electric, natural gas, and water utility shutoffs for the duration of this declared emergency. If you are facing imminent shutoff notices, or your utilities were shut off, call PURA at 1-800-382-4586. This moratorium, however, does not apply to fuel oil.  Operation Fuel, Connecticut’s fuel assistance program, is still taking applications and can be reached at 860-243-2346, or by email at info@operationfuel.org.

What about other worries I now have - food, child care, clothing, housing and so on?  How can I find out what might be available to help?

S.G.:  Connecticut’s United Way 211 is always available to answer questions about Connecticut’s many programs to help state residents.  Call 800-203-1234. This website provides information on Connecticut services by categories like food, shelter, and medical care. This website can help you identify the specific programs for which you might now be eligible. Recognize, however, that this crisis is impacting everyone in the state, so it may be harder to reach people and some programs may overwhelmed.

Submitted by Sayuri Gavaskar on March 24, 2020