Rights for Quarantined Essential Workers

Ensuring that essential workers do not have to go to work sick is crucial to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are options to consider for essential workers who need to quarantine due to COVID-19.

Massachusetts Earned Sick Time

Most employees in Massachusetts have the right to earn up to 40 hours of job protected sick leave per year at the rate of at least 1 hour per every 30 hours worked. If your employer has 11 or more employees, this sick leave must be paid. Employers can have a general paid time off policy, but employees must have the right to earn up to 40 hours that is treated as sick time.

The Attorney General’s Office has issued guidance stating that if a public health official or health care provider recommends that you quarantine, that is an acceptable use of earned sick time. Employees may choose to save their earned sick time for later use and take emergency leave under the FFCRA or to receive Unemployment Insurance first, if eligible.

If you are being denied access to earned sick time by your employer, file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)

There are two components of FFRCA that may be of assistance to essential workers:

  • Up to 12 weeks of public health emergency leave to eligible employees who must care for a child whose school or childcare is closed (the first 10 days may be unpaid)
  • Up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick time to eligible full-time employees unable to work for specified COVID-19 reasons.

You may want to begin by inquiring whether you qualify for this paid leave. However, many essential workers fall under exemptions to these protections. The Act does not apply to employers with over 500 employees. Additionally, employers may elect to exclude health care providers or emergency responders from eligibility. Finally, employers with fewer than 50 employees may qualify for an exemption in limited circumstances. For more information on the FFCRA, visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s guidance on the new law.

If you do not qualify for FFRCA leave or have exhausted those benefits, there are still avenues for you to consider. 

Unemployment Insurance

The Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) may pay unemployment benefits to a worker who is quarantined by a health official or medical professional, or who leaves employment due to a reasonable risk of infection or to care for a family member. You do not need to supply medical documentation and only need to be available for work when and as able. More information is available in guidance provided by DUA.

Workers' Compensation

Almost all employees are covered by Workers’ Compensation insurance, overseen by the Department of Industrial Accidents. If you contract COVID-19 due to a work-related reason, you could be eligible for workers’ compensation. If you qualify, you can receive payments to partially replace your paycheck and for medical care. In most cases, you cannot claim both workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits.

Short-Term Disability

Massachusetts does not have a state disability benefits program. However, your employer may offer short-term disability insurance as a benefit. You should check with your human resources department to find out whether your employer offers this as a benefit. If so, you may be able to access this benefit if you cannot work due to COVID-19.

Family Medical Leave

If you cannot work due to COVID-19 or because you are caring for a family member with COVID-19, you may be eligible for leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Under FMLA, covered employers must provide their employees with job-protected, unpaid leave. For more information on whether you qualify, please visit the US Department of Labor’s FAQs on FMLA. If you qualify for FMLA, you are entitled to the continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms as before you took the leave.

Reasonable Accommodation

If you have a disability that puts you at higher risk for complications of COVID-19 you may request a reasonable accommodation, such as the ability to telework. For more information visit the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Resources. If you have been denied a reasonable accommodation request, please contact the Civil Rights Division at the Attorney General’s Office.

Paid Time Off Banks

Generally, employers have a right to determine when employees can take vacation time or other PTO (excluding sick leave) based on business need. An employer can require a draw down on paid vacation and personal leave when an employee is absent from work to ensure an employee is still paid during the absence. However, employees are encouraged to explore the options listed above as alternatives to a PTO draw-down to ensure they have paid leave time available to them after the COVID-19 public health crisis subsides.

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