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How to Get Help from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

By Rachel Sanborn Lawrence

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act was signed into law on Thursday, March 19, 2020 and goes into effect on April 2. It gives extra paid sick and caregiving leave to many — but definitely not all — workers. It also guarantees free coronavirus testing, provides some extra nutrition assistance, and helps states with unemployment benefits.

Here’s what you need to know.

Emergency paid sick leave

Who it applies to:

The new emergency sick leave applies to you if you’re eligible (see below) and are going through any of these:

  • You’re subject to a quarantine or isolation order (like California, New York City, New Jersey, Ohio, Louisiana, and Illinois are at the time of writing this) and can’t do your work from home

  • You were told by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine

  • You’re caring for someone in one of those two situations

  • You have symptoms of COVID-19 and are trying to be diagnosed

  • You’re caring for your child if their school or childcare has closed

Who it doesn’t:

If you’re a healthcare provider or emergency responder, your employer can offer you the leave, but is allowed to decide not to. If you work for a company with more than 500 employees, you aren’t eligible for this extra leave — even if you’re dealing with the situations above. You’d need to use any leave your employer provides to you instead.

It also doesn’t kick in until April 2, and won’t be retroactive to any time you couldn’t work before then — even if it’s because schools are closed, you’re ordered to stay home, or someone’s sick.

What it requires:

  • If you’re a full-time employee, you are eligible for 80 hours or ten days of sick leave through the act.

  • If you’re a part-time employee, you’re eligible for sick leave for the average number of your working hours over a two-week period.

  • This sick leave is in addition to any existing paid sick leave your employer pays, and they must use this new leave first, before requiring that any other paid leave be used up.

  • You get all of the hours to use immediately as of April 2 (even if you just started work there).

  • Your employer can’t discriminate against you for asking for leave or force you to find replacements for the time you take off.

How much it pays:

If you’re sick or ordered to stay home yourself, you have to be paid your normal wage (or minimum wage, if that’s higher). Payments are capped at a max of $511 per day or $5,110 in total. This equates to a gross salary of about $132,000 a year.

If you’re caring for someone else, you have to be paid at two-thirds of your normal wage (or minimum wage, if that’s higher). Payments are capped at a max of $200 a day or $2,000 in total for the ten days.

You won’t have to pay the usual 6.2% Social Security payroll tax for this leave.

Extended paid family and medical leave

Who it applies to:

This part of the law expands the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to offer up to 12 weeks of paid leave for parents employed outside the home who are dealing with school closures and childcare issues. If your child’s elementary or secondary school is closed for more than five days in a row — or if your childcare isn’t available for more than five days in a row — you can now take this paid leave through the FMLA.

The paid leave applies to both full-time and part-time employees.

Who it doesn’t:

The requirements for extended care leave are more stringent than the ones for sick leave. The child you’re caring for must be your own child — not your grandchild, foster child, niece, etc. Unlike with sick leave, you also have to have worked at least 30 days with your employer.

All other portions of the FMLA are the same, so you can also use it to take unpaid leave if you need to give care to another family member (like a parent, a spouse, or a child who doesn’t qualify for paid leave), as long as you live with them or are allowed to travel to see them.

Just as with sick leave, the extended FMLA leave doesn’t apply if your company has more than 500 employees. If you’re a healthcare provider or emergency responder, your company is allowed to decide whether they want to offer it to you.

What it requires:

  • The first ten days in this situation are unpaid leave, because you get that sick leave that you can use first.

  • Union members will have access to a multiemployer fund instead.

  • Your employer is required to restore you to your prior position after you come back, with a couple of exceptions: if your company has fewer than 25 employees, or if your job doesn’t exist when you come back due to the economic effects of the pandemic and your employer can’t find you something similar.

  • The expansion takes place on April 2 and runs through December 31, 2020. It’s not retroactive before April 2.

How much it pays:

After the first ten unpaid days, you’d get paid two-thirds of your normal amount of work, whether you’re full-time or part-time, up to $200 a day or $10,000 in total. You won’t have to pay the usual 6.2% Social Security payroll tax for this leave.

If you’re self-employed or a freelancer

If you’re a freelancer or self-employed, you can get a refundable tax credit for giving yourself these benefits. That means that if you’re able to pay yourself through the crisis, you can claim a tax credit when you file your 2020 taxes in 2021. If you can’t afford to pay yourself right now and your income has dropped significantly, you’d likely be eligible for low-income benefits, such as food help, housing help, and Medicaid.

If you’re a self-employed person with employees, you have to give them these benefits starting April 2. To pay for them, a tax credit will be applied to the tax you normally pay for each employee’s Social Security. If paying this leave before getting paid back with a tax credit would “jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern” (aka put you out of business), you will be exempt. The Labor Department is required to send you a notice with information about emergency sick leave provisions by Wednesday, March 25.

If you’re not eligible for leave benefits

There are two types of employees who are exempt from this act. Healthcare providers and emergency responders can be excluded by their employers. It also doesn’t apply to companies with more than 500 employees. These exemptions mean that a lot of people are still not being helped, particularly those who are still expected to work. One estimate shows that only 12% of employees of businesses likely to stay open during the pandemic — in healthcare, retail, delivery, and food — are eligible for these benefits.

If you’re not eligible, check in with your HR department to see what their current policy is and whether they have any emergency policy in place.

How to apply for sick or family leave

Contact your HR department and follow your usual PTO and leave process. They’re required to follow this law. Since your HR department itself might be dealing with people who are unable to work, it’s a good idea to do two extra things:

Documentation. Get the email from your kids’ school. Share the doctor’s notes. Point to the orders closing down your area (though these will probably affect big groups working for your company). If your employer denies you leave or forces you to take your own leave first, documentation could help you with legal follow-up later.

Reminders. This is a new law, and it’s a good idea to remind your employers about it. You could just add a note that says something like this:

Sick leave:“Due to the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Care Act, it is my understanding that the first 10 days of leave will be paid through the FFCRA and not through any paid time off I have saved up.”

Paid family leave: “Due to the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Care Act, it is my understanding that after I have taken ten days of family leave to care for my child, I will be paid two-thirds of my salary through the FFCRA for up to 12 weeks.”

Free testing

The law guarantees that insurance providers can’t charge or “cost-share” for coronavirus testing, and extends Medicaid to cover the test for uninsured people. You can still be charged for treatment if you’re sick; this is only for testing. It’s also not a guarantee that you will receive a test. You will still need to follow your healthcare provider’s eligibility guidance, and there may be shortages of testing kits where you live.

Nutrition assistance

Another part of the act directs extra money to provide nutrition assistance to families that are struggling. It provides $500 million in extra funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (aka WIC), and $400 million to The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and other senior nutrition programs.

It also suspends existing work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka SNAP — this used to be known as food stamps). It also lets states access emergency SNAP benefits. You can learn more about them here.

Unemployment insurance

The final part of the act allows states to modify their unemployment policies to account for virus-related issues without penalty, and makes more funds available to help make sure states can pay unemployment claims. If you’re filing for unemployment, you don’t need to do anything differently — just follow your state’s general policy. Nothing has changed there (except for volume, so you may see your state doing new things to manage how people file).

The passage of this law is a good start — and it’s not the end. If you’re struggling right now, you should know that more assistance is being considered this week. We’ll keep updating you — and if you have any questions on how to use these new benefits, we’re here to answer. Email us at questions@ellevest.com and we’ll answer your question personally. We’re in this together.


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What you need to know about managing your financial health during the coronavirus pandemic. Plus fact-based opinions and women supporting women. Delivered 3x a week.

Rachel Sanborn Lawrence

Rachel Sanborn is the Director of Advisory Services at Ellevest and a CFP® Professional. She oversees Ellevest’s coaching teams and works with Ellevest members to help them be the boss of their money.