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CDLE finalizes new rules regarding Colorado’s new paid leave laws

As noted in a prior blog post, the CDLE has finalized a crop of new rules on a variety of topics. This post addresses its Wage Protection Rules, effective January 1, 2021.  The Wage Protection Rules focus on issues related to Colorado’s new paid leave law (HFWA, Health Families and Workplace Act). Highlights of the rules include the following:

  • Rule 2.7.4: How to count employees for the purpose of determining whether a small business is under the 16-employee threshold and may, therefore, qualify for delayed implementation of HFWA’s 48 hour/6 day leave requirements until January 1, 2022.
  • Prefatory Statement and Rule 3.5.4(A)-(B): The requirements for a company’s current paid leave policies to satisfy the HFWA requirement for 48 hours (6 days for salaried employees) of general sick leave, to include the following:
    • The policy must provide for at least HFWA’s required 48 hours (6 days).
    • The policy must allow its leave to be taken for all the same reasons as HFWA. Employers are reminded that HFWA permits leave to be taken for more than just the employee’s illness. As summarized by the CDLE in its INFO 6b, HFWA permits an employee to take this time for any of the following reasons:

(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.

    • The policy cannot impose stricter conditions on an employee’s ability to accrue, use and be paid leave, nor can it require notice or documentation (see below) not permitted to be required by HFWA.
      • Employers are reminded that HFWA contains a strict formula for minimum accrual rates, though frontloading is also permitted.
      • Employers are also reminded that HFWA does not permit a delay on usage, such as many sick leave policies that commonly now say sick leave may not be used until after, say, the first 90 days of employment.
    • The policy must also confirm that its leave includes HFWA’s required leave and that, therefore, employees will not receive additional HFWA leave if they use the leave (such as PTO) for other reasons first, except the company will supplement their leave banks as needed to grant 80 hours of pandemic leave in the event of a public health emergency.
      • Employers should carefully consider how they word this disclaimer, so that they do not inadvertently interfere with, minimize, or chill an employee’s HFWA rights.
  • Prefatory statement and Rule 3.5.2: HFWA’s requirement that the employee be paid leave on the basis of “the same rate and with the same benefits, including health benefits,” as if he’d worked, includes all compensation missed while on leave, including base pay, overtime, bonuses, and holiday pay, and even premium pay and shift differentials.
  • Prefatory statement and Rule 3.5.3(C): Explanation that, where an employee is eligible for both HFWA’s 48 hours (6 days for salaried employees) of general sick leave and 80 hours  (10 days for salaried employees) of pandemic leave, the employee must be allowed to take the 80 hours of pandemic leave first before exhausting their other paid leave, such as the 48 hours of HFWA leave.
  • Rule 3.5.3(B): When an employee takes intermittent HFWA leave it is generally taken in 6-minute increments, unless the employer specifies a different increment in its policy, up to 1 hour.
  • Rules 3.5.4-3.5.5: The notice and documentation requirements for leave. Employers are reminded that the documentation requirements are not significant and leave generally cannot be denied for lack of documentation of the sort many employers are used to requiring for sick leave. The CDLE explains the ability for employers to require documents, as follows (emphasis added):

An employer may require “reasonable documentation” that leave is for a HFWA-qualifying purpose only if the leave requested or taken is for “four or more consecutive work days,” C.R.S. § 8-13.3-404(6), defined as four consecutive days on which the employee would have ordinarily worked absent the leave-qualifying condition, not four consecutive calendar days. An employer may not require an employee to provide documentation that leave is for a qualifying reason “related to [a] public health emergency” under C.R.S. § 8-13.3-405(3), (4).

(A) When documentation is required, an employer may request only “reasonable” documentation, which is defined as not more documentation than needed to show a HFWA-qualifying reason for leave, as described in subparts (B), (C), and (D) below, and an employer shall not require disclosure of “details” regarding the employee’s or family member’s “health information” or the “domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking” that is the basis for HFWA leave (C.R.S. § 8-13.3-412(1)).

(B) To document leave for a health-related need under C.R.S. § 8-13.3-404(1)(a), (b):

(1) If the employee received any services (including remote services) from a health or social services provider for the HFWA-qualifying condition or need, a document from that provider, indicating a HFWA-qualifying purpose for the leave, will suffice.
(2) An employee who did not receive services from a provider for the HFWA qualifying leave, or who cannot obtain a document from their provider in reasonable time or without added expense, can provide their own writing indicating that they took leave for a HFWA-qualifying purpose.

(C) To document leave for a safety-related need covered by C.R.S. §§ 8-13.3-404(1)(c) (i.e., domestic abuse, sexual assault, or criminal harassment): A document under subpart (B)(1) (from a health provider or a non-health provider of legal services, shelter services, social work, or other similar services) or an employee writing under (B)(2) will suffice, as will a legal document indicating a safety need that was the reason for the leave (e.g., a restraining order, other court order, or police report).
(D) Submission of documentation to an employer may be provided (1) by any reasonable method, including but not limited to electronic transmission, (2) at any time until whichever is sooner of an employee’s return from leave (or termination of employment, if the employee does not return), (3) without a requirement of the employee’s signature, notarization, or any other particular document format.
(E) Confidentiality of leave-related information and documentation. Any information an employer possesses regarding the health of an employee or the employee’s family member, or regarding domestic abuse, sexual assault, or criminal harassment affecting an employee or employee’s family member, shall be treated as confidential and may not be disclosed to any other individual except the affected employee, unless the affected employee provides written permission prior to such disclosure. C.R.S. § 8-13.3-412(2)(c). If the information is in writing, it shall be maintained on a separate form and in a separate file from other personnel information, and shall be treated as a confidential medical record by the employer. C.R.S. § 8-13.3-412(2)(a)-(b).

(F) If an employer reasonably deems an employee’s documentation deficient, without imposing a requirement of providing more documentation than HFWA or applicable rules permit, prior to denying leave, the employer must: (1) notify the employee within seven days of either receiving the documentation or the employee’s return to work (or termination of employment, if the employee does not return), and (2) provide the employee the minimum of seven days to cure deficiency after the employee is notified that the employer deems the existing documentation inadequate.

  • Rule 3.5.7 explains an employer’s recordkeeping obligations, including an obligation to keep all records for 2 years.
  • Rule 3.5.7 confirms an employer’s obligation to tell an employee, upon request, how much leave they have accrued and how much they have used. Requests may not be made more often than monthly, except additional requests can be made if there is a possible need for HFWA leave. This information may be communicated to the employee, among other ways, by reflecting such amounts on a pay stub.
    • Employers are cautioned that HFWA and Rule 3.5.7 talk about an employer’s obligation to show accrued and used amounts as if different. It isn’t clear if simply showing the employee’s accrued and unused balance is sufficient. Example compare telling an employee (1) <<This year you accrued 48 hours, of which you have used 8 hours, leaving you 40 hours as of this paycheck>> versus (2) <<You have 40 hours, accrued and unused, as of this paycheck.>>
  • Rule 5.1.4 discusses the CDLE’s authority to issue remedies in the event an administrative claim is filed with it for a violation. These remedies include monetary relief, such as unpaid wages, penalties, and fines, back pay plus either reinstatement or front pay, plus such other amounts as the CDLE finds it is authorized to award.

Employers are reminded that HFWA’s current 80 hours of pandemic leave will expire at the end of 2020. In an informal phone call with the CDLE, this author was advised that the agency believes a declaration effective on or after January 1, 2021 will be required to trigger 80 hours of pandemic leave starting January 1, 2021, in other words, that the current declarations of public health emergencies do not suffice — especially since they predate HFWA’s enactment. In what this author would think is the likely event of future declaration(s) effective on or after January 1, 2021, the CDLE advised that it believes employees will receive a fresh 80 hours at that time; in other words, assume a hypothetical employee has used 71 hours of the current pandemic leave by December 31, 2020, leaving him only 9 hours for this year. A fresh declaration will top his pandemic leave back up to 80 (not 9, nor 9+80=89).

Employers in Colorado should take time to familiarize themselves with these new rules.

BREAKING NEWS: Colorado Department of Labor and Employment issues paid-sick leave rule regarding coronavirus testing

According to a verbally issued executive order by Colorado Governor Polis, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment has issued a rule (the “Colorado HELP” rule, aka the Colorado Health Emergency Leave with Pay rule) requiring certain employers to provide up to 4 days of paid leave for employees awaiting a coronavirus test result. Rule 3 reads, as follows:

Rule 3. Paid Sick Leave for Certain Employees.
3.1 Any employer engaged in the field of leisure and hospitality, food services, child care, education at all levels (including related services, including but not limited to cafeterias and transportation to, from, and on campuses), home health care (working with elderly, disabled, ill, or otherwise high-risk individuals), operating a nursing home, or operating a community living facility shall provide up to four days of paid sick leave for an employee (A) with flu-like symptoms and (B) who is being tested for COVID-19. The paid sick leave ends if an employee receives a negative COVID-19 test result.

3.2 These rules do not require an employer to offer additional days of paid sick leave if it already offers all employees an amount of paid leave sufficient to comply with Rules 3.1. However, an employee who already exhausted his or her paid leave allotted by the employer, but then has flulike symptoms and is being tested for COVID-19, is entitled to the additional paid sick days provided by Rule 3.1.
3.3 During paid sick leave covered by these rules, pay shall be provided (A) at the employee’s regular rate of pay (the COMPS Order Rule 1.8 definition of “regular rate of pay” is incorporated into this rule), including all forms of wages and compensation (but increased to the applicable minimum wage for an employee paid below the minimum wage due to a tip credit), and (B) for the employer’s regularly worked hours. To the extent that the employee’s rate of pay or hours worked had varied before the absence for illness, pay shall be in the amount of the employee’s average daily pay for the preceding month.
3.4 To the extent feasible, employees and employers should comply with the procedures of the federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to pursue and provide paid sick leave under these rules, except that (A) no employer may terminate an employee for inability to provide documentation during an illness covered by these rules, and (B) FMLA provisions do not narrow the rights and responsibilities provided by these rules.

Governor Polis has stated an intent to continue to explore ways the state can respond, including expanding availability of unemployment benefits and possibly freeing up state-government money to assist with other wage losses.

The CDLE’s page on its Colorado HELP rule, including the CDLE’s FAQ list, is available here, which includes the following Q&As:

What does the rule do?

  • Temporarily requires employers in certain industries (listed below) to provide a small amount of paid sick leave to employees with flu-like symptoms who are being tested for coronavirus COVID-19.

How much paid sick leave must be provided?

  • The employer must provide up to four days of paid sick leave to employees with flu-like symptoms who are being tested for coronavirus COVID-19. If the employee receives a negative test result, the paid leave ends.

Is this a requirement on top of sick leave an employer already provides?

  • No. If an employer already provides the paid leave necessary to meet these rules’ requirements, then the employer does not need to provide additional leave. However, if an employer does not already provide enough paid sick leave to comply with these rules, it will have to provide additional paid sick leave to meet the rules’ requirements. And if an employee already exhausted any paid leave allotted by the employer, but then has flu-like symptoms and is being tested for COVID-19, he or she is entitled to the additional paid sick days these rules provide.

Which employees and employers are covered by these sick leave rules?

  • Employers and employees in one of the following industries or jobs:
    • Leisure and Hospitality
    • Food Services
    • Child care
    • Education, including transportation, food service, and related work at educational establishments
    • Home health, if working with elderly, disabled, ill, or otherwise high-risk individuals
    • Nursing homes
    • Community living facilities
  • Workers are covered regardless of pay rate or method (hourly, weekly, piece rate, etc.); the daily pay during leave is either their established daily rate or, if their pay fluctuates, their average daily pay for the past month.

How long will the rule stay in effect?

  • The rules take effect March 11, 2020, for 30 days, or longer if the state of emergency declared by the Governor continues.

Why are these rules being created?

  • With the continuing spread of coronavirus COVID-19, coming to work while ill poses a serious threat to the health and safety of co-workers, others at the business, and the public generally. These rules will temporarily entitle certain employees to paid sick days in order to limit the spread of this disease.

Will additional funds be available for workers who need to be out of work longer than four days?

  • The current emergency rules only speak to paid leave for the four-day period required for testing, because that is what CDLE could do immediately. The Governor has asked CDLE to identify other potential supports and wage replacement, such as access to unemployment insurance. These options are under review to determine rulemaking authority, eligibility, etc.

 

Three issues in Colorado regarding vacation pay

Colorado law, CRS 8-4-101 defines vacation to be a part of “wages” when “earned in accordance with the terms of any agreement. If an employer provides paid vacation for an employee, the employer shall pay upon separation from employment all vacation pay earned and determinable in accordance with the terms of any agreement between the employer and the employee.” As such, an employee cannot agree to waive vacation, or any other “wages,” once “earned, pursuant to CRS 8-4-121, and CRS 8-4-109 requires that such vacation, along with all other “wages,” to be paid out in final paychecks.

Despite what seems relatively clear statutory language on first blush, three issues persist. Colorado employers have received some fleshout on at least two.

1. Can an employer impose conditions on the payout of vacation in a final paycheck? The Colorado Court of Appeals says, yes.

A recent Colorado Court of Appeals case suggests the law may not be that simple. In  Nieto v. Clark’s Mkt., Inc. the employer added a twist in its handbook. There, a policy said that an employee “forfeits all earned vacation and pay benefits” if they fail to provide 2-week notice before quitting. The employee cited the foregoing statutes, arguing the vacation could not be waived and had to be paid out in the final paycheck.

The Court of Appeals held for the company. The Court of Appeals looked to the “terms of any agreement,” as required by the statute, in other words, to the language of the vacation policy and held that 2-week notice was a condition of earning the vacation.

Ms. Nieto’s right to compensation for accrued but unused vacation pay depends on the parties’ employment agreement. And that agreement unequivocally says that the vacation pay she seeks wasn’t vested given the circumstances under which she left the Market’s employ.

Is Nieto good law in Colorado, can employers rely comfortably on it? Many would argue that the Colorado Court of Appeals simply got it wrong. However, the deadline for appeal has now passed, so it is certainly the law as between Ms. Nieto and her former employer Clark’s Market, Inc. It is noted too that the decision was selected for official publication, so, unless the Court of Appeals or the Colorado Supreme Court revisit the issue in a future case, it is binding on trial courts. Therefore employers could arguably rely on it for now, so long as they are willing to risk protracted litigation and future appeals.

2. Can an employer apply a use-it-or-lose-it rule to vacation at the end of every year? The Colorado Division of Labor and Employment says, no, but the issue is pending in the Colorado Court of Appeals.

Pending before the Colorado Court of Appeals is Blount, Inc. v. CDLE, in which the Colorado Division of Labor and Employment is asking the Court of Appeals to rule against an employer’s purported use-it-or-lose-it policy. In an apparent effort to end-run the Court’s decision, the CDLE issued on the same day as it filed a brief in the appeal, a new rule (7 CCR 1103-7 rule 2.15) — which it then proceed to rely upon in its brief — stating that employers may not have use-it-or-lose-it policies. How will the Court of Appeals rule? How will the Court of Appeals view the CDLE’s apparent claim-jumping regulation? Will the Court of Appeals take Blount as an opportunity to re-consider or limit Nieto? Stay tuned.

3. Do these same rules apply to PTO or just vacation? The Division of Labor and Employment says, no, these restrictions do not apply to PTO.

As of this summer, callers to the Colorado Division of Labor and Employment will be told it takes the position that these “vacation” rules do not apply to PTO. CRS 8-4-101 speaks only to the inclusion of “vacation” in “wages,” not PTO; therefore, the Division will not currently pursue an administrative wage claim for PTO.

Notwithstanding, employers should realize that some plaintiff attorneys will take such claims to court, but they do so under a contract law theory, not under Colorado’s wage statutes, and as a contract claim, such claims do not carry attorney fees or penalties.