By Erica E. Flores, Esq.
On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, the Massachusetts legislature passed emergency legislation waiving the one-week waiting period for “for any person making a claim for unemployment benefits who has become separated from work as a result of any circumstance relating to or resulting from the outbreak of the 2019 novel Coronavirus or ‘COVID-19’ or the effects of the Governor’s March 10, 2020 declaration of a state of emergency.” The waiver applies to any claim filed on or after March 10, 2020, and will not expire until 90 days after the declaration of a state of emergency has been lifted. This new legislation will be discussed in our complimentary webinar, Coronavirus Q&A for Employers, on Friday, March 20, 2020, from noon to 1 pm. Click here for registration information.
Also on Wednesday, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Unemployment Assistance (“DUA”) issued emergency regulations and other guidance to implement the new waiver and to expand the availability of unemployment to employees who are out of work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new rules allow employees to collect unemployment if (1) they are quarantined due to an order by a civil authority or medical professional; (2) they leave their employment due to a reasonable risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member and either do not intend or are not allowed to return to work. In either case, the worker need not provide medical documentation and need only be available for work when and as they are able. However, the new rules are not limited to those who have been quarantined or may be exposed to the virus.
The DUA regulations will also extend unemployment benefits to those whose workplace has shut down because of the COVID-19 emergency, but is expected to reopen in four or fewer weeks. Employees who fall into this category are required to remain in contact with their employer and must be available to do any work their employer may have for them that they are able to do, but they do not otherwise need to be looking for work. The new rules also allow employers to extend the shutdown to as long as eight weeks. In that case, the impacted workers will remain eligible to collect unemployment for the duration of the shutdown. The DUA has discretion to extend these time periods if necessary.
In an effort to streamline the claims process, the DUA has published an Unemployment Handbook, accessible here, that provides step-by-step instructions to workers who seek to file unemployment claims related to the emergency. The handbook clarifies that workers whose claims are due to COVID-19 should select “Layoff” as the reason for their separation and that they will not be required to actively look for work, register with a Massachusetts One-Stop Career Center, or attend a Career Center seminar in order to receive benefits.
Where does all of this leave employers? Certainly, many businesses will be facing bigger unemployment bills. But the new DUA rules do allow employers to request a grace period of up to 60 days to file their quarterly reports and pay their unemployment contributions. Additionally, legislation pending at the federal level includes some relief for employers who are burdened with increased unemployment contributions due to the pandemic.
Skoler Abbott is actively monitoring all state and federal legislative and executive developments related to the COVID-19 crisis, and we will continue to publish updates on our blogs. Those who have questions related to the emergency should feel free to contact us at (413) 737-4753 – we stand ready to help employers navigate the crisis in any way that we can.