“Colorado employers continue to lose vast majority of cases to compel workers back on the job,” reports Denver Business Journal

As noted in prior blog posts, Colorado employers have been, and now continue to be, held liable for unemployment benefits in bulk of unemployment claims, despite calls to return to work.

“It has held remarkably steady between 16% and 18%,” Fitzgerald said of the total number of decisions that have gone for employers over the three-plus months the department has heard such disputes. “There’s a number of folks who are just not safe to return to a job regardless of the actions their employers take.”
— Read on www.bizjournals.com/

Governor Polis signs Colorado sick leave laws into effect, requiring IMMEDIATE action by employers

Governor Polis has signed two laws into effect.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) has issued summaries of each law (which it calls INFOs).

Additionally, the CDLE has released a poster (Spanish) for immediate posting by covered employers (see below).

Immediate Posting and Notification Obligations

Covered employers are required to immediately:

  • Post the required poster (Spanish).
    • Postings must be made in English and any language that at least 5% of the workforce speaks.
  • Notify employees of their rights under PHEW and HFWA. This notice may be accomplished by distributing in writing or by e-mail the required poster (Spanish).
    • If a company wishes, it may also meet this requirement by distributing copies of INFO 5, 6A and 6B, instead of (or in addition to) the poster.
  • Comply with the other requirements of PHEW and HFWA that took immediate effect (see below).

PHEW – Whistleblower and other protections

As explained in the CDLE’s INFO 5, PHEW applies to Colorado employers irrespective of size and also covers companies (called “principals” in the new law) who contract with five or more independent contractors in a year; it protects their employees and contractors

PHEW provides whistleblower protections for employees who lodge complaints regarding a public health emergency, i.e., who raise “a reasonable concern about workplace violations of government health or safety rules, or about an otherwise significant workplace threat to health or safety, related to a public health emergency.” Additionally it protects those who oppose such unsafe practices or participate in their investigation, determination or remedying. In INFO 5, the CDLE includes these observations regarding this aspect of PHEW:

Reasonableness​: Workers are protected even if they are incorrect about a claimed violation, if their belief was “reasonable” and in “good faith.” Workers are​ not protected for communications (A) that are “knowingly false,” or are made “​with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the information,” or (B) that “​share individual health information that is otherwise prohibited from disclosure” by state or federal law. (C.R.S. 8-14.4-102(5)-(6).)

Principal is not required to ​agree ​with, or ​act on, incorrect concerns​: If a worker’s concern is reasonable but incorrect, the principal is not required to agree with it, or to take any action the worker requests. It just cannot fire or otherwise act against the worker for raising that concern (for example, with a demotion, discipline, a cut in pay or hours, or an undesired transfer or shift change).

PHEW requires companies to allow individuals to wear their own desired pandemic-related safety gear, so long as it is more (not less) protective than that required by law and by the company.

A principal must allow, and cannot act against a worker for, “voluntarily wearing at the worker’s workplace the worker’s own personal protective equipment, such as a mask, faceguard, or gloves” (“PPE”) — with these limits and conditions on the PPE that the worker has a right to wear (C.R.S. 8-14.4-102(3)):

  • only PPE that “provides ​a higher level of protection than the equipment provided by the principal”;
  • only PPE that “is recommended by a federal, state, or local public health agency with jurisdiction over the worker’s workplace”; and
  • only PPE that “does not render the worker incapable of performing the worker’s job or prevent a worker from fulfilling the duties of the worker’s position.”

PHEW prohibits non-disclosure agreements that would otherwise impair an employee’s rights under PHEW. 

HFWA – Sick leave and other requirements

As explained in the CDLE’s INFO 5 and 6, HFWA takes effect in three stages.

Stage 1: HFWA’s immediate requirements

Effective immediately, all employers, irrespective of size, must

  • Offer leave that mirrors the federal FFCRA (Cares Act) leave currently required for coronavirus purposes.
    • While this new state law mirrors the requirements of the federal FFCRA, it expands the FFCRA in at least one major respect. This new Colorado law now requires such leave for employers of all sizes; whereas, the FFCRA does not apply to companies with more than 500 workers and has possible exemptions for employers with fewer than 15 workers.
    • Additionally HFWA offers no tax credits for the payment of this new leave. Whereas the FFCRA allows for the costs of such leave to be passed through effectively to the federal government in the form of tax credits, this means large employers who are not subject to the FFCRA apparently will have to absorb the costs of this new leave.  
    • The process for requesting and granting HFWA leave tracks the FFCRA’s in many respects, including the types of documentation involved.
      • However, the HFWA explicitly states that an employee’s failure to provide documentation or advance notice is generally not grounds for denying the leave.  “Documentation is not required to take paid sick leave, but can be required as soon as the employee reasonably can provide it” (quoting the CDLE’s INFO 6A).

Notice can be oral, and must provide only enough information for an employer to determine whether the leave is for an HWFA purpose. An employer may not require notice to include information or documentation beyond what is allowed in the documentation above. An employee’s representative (​e.g., spouse, adult family member, or other responsible party) may provide the notice if the employee cannot do so personally. If an employee fails to give notice, the employer must notify the employee of the failure and provide an opportunity to provide notice before denying the requested leave.

    • Existing leave policies can comply if they otherwise meet or exceed the HFWA’s requirements.
  • Post the required poster (Spanish).
  • Notify workers of their HFWA rights (see above regarding doing so by distribution of the poster and/or INFO 5, 6A and 6B).

Workers have complaint and anti-retaliation protections; however, the anti-retaliation provisions do not protect employee abuse of the HFWA as explained by the CDLE in INFO 6B:

HFWA disallows acting against employees for ​incorrect complaints or information, as long as the employee’s belief was reasonable and in good faith. (C.R.S. 8-13.3-407(3).) Employers ​can impose consequences (firing or otherwise) for misusing paid leave, dishonesty, or other leave-related misconduct. (C.R.S. 8-13.3-408.)

  • Example: ​An employer denies an employee paid leave for a “life coach” appointment. The employee files a complaint at the Division, and tells coworkers the employer is wrongly denying paid leave. The Division rules that this appointment was ​not HFWA-covered. That means the employer did nothing wrong by denying leave. But without evidence the employee’s belief that HFWA covered the appointment was unreasonable or in bad faith, the employer ​can’t ​ take action against the employee for requesting leave, filing a complaint, or telling co-workers she believed the employer violated HFWA.
  • Example:​ An ​employer​ grants​ an ​employee ​request ​for​ paid​ leave​ for a ​blood ​test ​and​ physical​ exam.​ The employer then learns the employee went bowling and never really had that appointment, so it (A) denies the request for paid leave and (B) fires the employee for dishonest misuse of leave. The employee files a complaint claiming (A) denial of paid leave and (B) retaliation against using HFWA rights. The employer did nothing wrong: (A) leave was not for an HFWA purpose, and (B) the firing was not retaliation because by taking leave with no HFWA purpose, the employee did not act reasonably or in good faith.

Stage 2: HFWA’s 1/1/2021 requirements

Effective 1/1/2021, for companies with more than 15 employees:

  • The HFWA’s (and FFCRA’s) pandemic sick leave requirements will have ended. Instead, an employer will be required to offer at least 48 hours (for hourly and 6 days for salaried workers) of sick leave for employees when
  1. having a mental or physical ​illness, injury, or health condition that prevents them from working;
  2. needing to get ​preventive medical care​, or to get a ​medical ​diagnosis, care, or treatment​, of any mental or physical illness, injury, or health condition;
  3. needing to ​care for a family member ​who has a mental or physical illness, injury, or health condition, or who needs the sort of care listed in category (2);
  4. the employee or the employee’s family member having been a victim of ​domestic abuse, sexual assault, or criminal harassment​, and needing leave for related medical attention, mental health care or other counseling, victim services (including legal services), or relocation; or
  5. due to a ​public health emergency​, a public official having ​closed ​either (A) the employee’s ​place of business​, or (B) the ​school or place of care ​of the employee’s child, requiring the employee needing to be absent from work to care for the child.
  • That leave will have to accrue at least at the rate of 1 hour per every 30 hours worked. Leave may be front loaded.
  • That leave may be capped at 48 hours per year.
  • That leave must be allowed to roll-over year-to-year (though again subject to a cap if the employer so elects).
  • That leave must be allowed for hourly and salaried employees, whether full-time or part-time, with accruals starting on the date of hire.
  • Note: Existing leave policies can comply if they otherwise meet or exceed the HFWA’s requirements.
    • With regard to PTO policies in particular, the 48 hour/6 day requirement is met so long as the full compliment of PTO exceeds such amounts. ‘Compliance can be through a broader paid leave policy, such as allowing “paid time off” for any purpose, health-related or not — as long as the policies (A) provide as much time off as HFWA requires, (B) for all conditions and situations that HFWA covers.”‘
    • Still relying on existing policies may be difficult for many companies as current sick leave policies often (a) provide for leave only when employees are sick (not for the other reasons set forth above), (b) provide only 5 not 6 sick days, (c) apply to employees after a 90-day probationary period and (d) do not cover part-time employees. These are just some examples of the kinds of current sick leave policies that will need to be revised to come up to HFWA’s requirements.
      • Additionally, policies should be revised to impose the permitted 48 hour/6 day cap; otherwise, as required, the sick leave will carry over and continue to accrue year after year.
  • Provide for at least 80 hours of sick leave in the event of another public health emergency. This leave will not be required in addition to the 48 hours/6 days required above; rather, leave requirements may be supplemented to cover the 80-hours of pandemic leave in the event of another public health emergency.
  • And as with the initial pandemic-leave requirements (see above), the HFWA explicitly states that an employee’s failure to provide documentation or advance notice is generally not grounds for denying the leave.
    • Additionally documentation may only be required when the absence is of 4 or more days, per CRS 8-13.3-404(6).

Stage 3: HFWA’s 1/1/2022 requirements

Effective 1/1/2022, the HFWA’s requirements will attach to employers of 15 or fewer.

HFWA and part-time employees

As noted, HFWA leave is required for part-time employees.

In footnote 2 of INFO 6A, the CDLE explains that Stage 1 HFWA leave (FFCRA-type pandemic leave) is to be provided to part-time employees, as follows:

​Leave for a part-time employee with a regular schedule is at the number of hours normally worked in a two-week period. If an employee’s hours vary, the employer must use their average hours over the six months before the leave. If the varied-schedule part-timer was employed less than six months, the employer must use the number of hours the employee agreed to work when hired, or if no such agreement exists, the average daily hours the employee was scheduled to work over their entire employment. (These are methods the U.S. Department of Labor adopted, 29 C.F.R. 826.21(b), so employers can use them for federal and Colorado law.)

And footnote 5 of INFO 6B explains the same for the availability of Stages 2 and 3 HFWA leave (general sick leave) for part-time employees, as follows:

​Leave for a part-time employee with a regular schedule is at the number of hours normally worked in a two-week period. If an employee’s hours vary, employers must use the employee’s average hours over the six months before leave started. If the varied-schedule part-timer has been employed less than six months, the employer must use the number of hours the employee agreed when hired, or if there is no such agreement, the average daily hours the employee was scheduled to work over their entire employment. Any of these calculations include hours the employee took leave, in addition to hours worked. (These are the methods the U.S. Department of Labor adopted, so employers can use the same method for federal and Colorado law.)


As explained in the CDLE’s INFO 6B, the HFWA allows for collectively bargained leave instead so long as it is “equivalent or more” than the HFWA requires:

Example: ​ A CBA can depart from the HFWA requirement that leave must be in hourly increments, but cannot eliminate HFWA rights to take leave without interference (or, relatedly, to file a complaint if HFWA is violated). 

HFWA and business closures

When Stage 2/3 HFWA leave kicks in, it will not be required for periods when an “entire business” is “completely closed.”

No paid leave required if an entire business is completely closed​. ​Unless a workplace is closed due to a temporary government quarantine/isolation order, no paid leave applies ​if an entire business is completely closed ​(whether temporarily or permanently) – because then, workers aren’t on “leave,” they’re on furlough or layoff (which makes unemployment insurance, not paid leave, the possible remedy).

Defining a public health emergency

Both PHEW and HFWA discuss the phrase “public health emergency” as periods recognized as such by ‘either (A) “a public health order issued by a state or local public health agency” or (B) “a disaster emergency declared by the governor based on a public health concern”’ (quoting the CDLE’s INFO 5). The CDLE notes in footnote 3 of INFO 6B that, starting at least 1/1/2021, a public health emergency need not be related to coronavirus.

Counting years

In footnote 4 of its INFO 6B, the CDLE states that, unless an employer specifies otherwise, years will be counted, at least for HFWA purposes, on the basis of a calendar year. 

If an employer doesn’t say otherwise, the “year” when paid leave accumulates is a ​calendar​ year, because HFWA’s broad leave requirements all start with calendar years: January 1, 2021, for most employers; January 1, 2022, for small employers. But an employer ​can ​ choose a different annual cycle if (A) it tells employees in writing in advance, and (B) switching to a different cycle doesn’t diminish employee HFWA rights. 

Successor liability

The HFWA imposes successor liability on a buyer who “acquires all of an organization, a trade, or a business or substantially all of the assets of one or more employers,” quoting CRS 8-13.3-402(12). See also CRS 8-13.3-403(8).

Supreme Court reinforces anti-discrimination law’s ministerial exemption

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court upheld religious elementary schools’ ability to otherwise-discriminate against teachers under the “ministerial” exemption. Title VII, the ADEA and other anti-discrimination laws recognize a ministerial exemption, consistent with the First Amendment, that permits a synagogue, for example, to require that its rabbi actually be Jewish and that she adhere faithfully to the synagogue’s interpretation of Judaism.

In this case two teachers sued for wrongful discharge. One alleged age discrimination, the other alleged disability discrimination. The schools responded that it need not prove the real reason for their discharges because neither were protected under either the age or disability discrimination laws, because both fell under the ministerial exemption. Neither teacher was a “minister” in the sense of being ordained, having the title of a minister, or having any religious education or formal training. However, both taught courses that included religion. Both had been instructed when hired and again during their employment that their individual faith and morals were essential components of their jobs performance. Both prayed with their students as part of their jobs. The majority of the Court held all of that was sufficient for both to fall within the ministerial exemption.

There is abundant record evidence that they both performed vital religious duties. Educating and forming students in the Catholic faith lay at the core of the mission of the schools where they taught, and their employment agreements and faculty handbooks specified in no uncertain terms that they were expected to help the schools carry out this mission and that their work would be evaluated to ensure that they were fulfilling that responsibility. As elementary school teachers responsible for providing instruction in all subjects, including religion, they were the members of the school staff who were entrusted most directly with the responsibility of educating their students in the faith. And not only were they obligated to provide instruction about the Catholic faith, but they were also expected to guide their students, by word and deed, toward the goal of living their lives in accordance with the faith. They prayed with their students, attended Mass with the students, and prepared the children for their participation in other religious activities. …. Their titles did not include the term “minister,” and they had less formal religious training, but their core responsibilities as teachers of religion were essentially the same. And both their schools expressly saw them as playing a vital part in carrying out the mission of the church, and the schools’ definition and explanation of their roles is important. In a country with the religious diversity of the United States, judges cannot be expected to have a complete understanding and appreciation of the role played by every person who performs a particular role in every religious tradition. A religious institution’s explanation of the role of such employees in the life of the religion in question is important.

Source: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, case no. 19-267 (7/8/2020).

Supreme Court expands religious exemption from Obamacare contraceptive requirements to private employers

When passed, so-called “Obamacare” contained exemptions from its contraceptive-coverage requirements for religious organizations and other non-profits that hold sincerely held religious objections. Following a series of regulatory developments and judicial decisions, eventually, by 2018, the Trump Administration expanded the exemptions to include private employers, including even publicly traded companies, and secular universities, even with regard to their student health care coverage.

In a fractured decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Trump Administration’s 2018 rule, at least for now. It is not clear from their fractured opinions whether the opinion resulted in a flat-out win or simply a remand. At least 2 of the Justices (Breyer and Kagan) whose votes are included in the 7-vote majority, wrote a concurrence outlining why they believe the Trump Administration may ultimately lose the case on remand. Commentators have already begun noting their belief that the case will not be successful on remand and is likely to return on appeal to the Supreme Court.

Source: Little Sisters of the Poor v. Penn., case no. 19-431 (7/8/2020).

EEOC expands mediation and conciliation opportunities

The EEOC has increased the mediation and conciliation opportunities available to employers as part of its charge-handling procedures.

Mediation is the process employers are most familiar with. Some, but not all, charges are automatically eligible for mediation when a charge is filed with the EEOC. Employers will have noticed receiving a written offer to mediate (instead of investigating) with most charges. Although the EEOC hasn’t yet disclosed details, the EEOC has announced it will increase the types of charges automatically eligible for mediation. Employers are reminded that, when they receive notice of a charge without an offer to mediate, it is often an indication that the EEOC believes the charge raises possibly very severe allegations. Employers are always free to request mediation of such charges too, though the EEOC reserves the right to decline to undertake mediation in lieu of investigation.

Conciliation is less common. The EEOC is generally required to undertake conciliation before, itself, filing suit against employers in court. As part of its new initiative, and again without yet disclosing details, the EEOC has announced it will expand its conciliation efforts, including by requiring management within the EEOC to review settlement demands before they are even communicated to employers.

Employers facing charges of discrimination, or even possible litigation by the EEOC, should consider the availability of mediation and conciliation, especially under these expanded opportunities.