New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the U.S. Department of Labor’s rule narrowing workers’ access to paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.  Note: This LR What You Need to Know Now deals with the NY Attorney General’s legal challenge to the federal rule, not employee rights under New York Law – please read this What You Need to Know Now for information on paid sick leave under New York Law.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Act) which, for the first time, provides federally mandated paid sick and family leave to certain workers. The Act also empowered the Department of Labor to interpret and clarify ambiguous parts of the law.

Under the recently-issued Department of Labor rule interpreting the Act, an employee under a quarantine or isolation order, caring for someone in their household, including a child unable to go to school, may not take sick leave when their employer does not have any work for the employee. The NY Attorney General argues that this exclusion defies the express purpose of the Act which is to protect the economic well-being of workers while halting the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the Act, “health care providers” and “emergency responders” can be excluded from paid-leave requirements. However, the Act does not define a health care provider or emergency responder. The Department of Labor’s rule broadly defines “health care providers” to include workers who are needed to keep health care facilities supplied and operational or involved in the “research, development, and production of equipment, drugs, vaccines, and other items needed to combat…COVID-19” which results in broad worker exclusions from the law.   

The NY Attorney General argues that these exclusions defeat Congress’s intent to protect workers by creating “an enormous class of millions of workers” that are denied paid leave protections and fails to follow the already established narrow definition of “health care provider” under the Family Medical Leave Act.

In the rule, the Department of Labor adopts the same broad approach to “emergency responder,” exempting more workers from the Act’s paid-leave coverage. Emergency responders include people who interact with individuals with physical or mental health issues, “ensure welfare and safety of our communities and Nation,” have specialized training relevant to emergency response, and provide essential services relevant to the American people’s health and wellbeing.

The NY Attorney General also challenges the Department of Labor’s limitations about how leave can be taken. As of now, the Department of Labor allows workers to take their paid sick or family leave intermittently (i.e. not all at once) only under certain conditions and with their employer’s consent. The NY Attorney general argues that the DOL exceeds its authority because nothing in the Act  authorizes the Department of Labor to require benefit time to be used in a single period.

The Department of Labor’s final rule also requires workers to submit documentation in certain situations before taking family leave or paid sick leave. According to the NY Attorney General, there is no language in the Act that allows the Department of Labor to set notice requirements for leave.  LR will continue to monitor this litigation and provide relevant updates in the What You Need to Know Now section of the LR homepage.