Image via Shutterstock New York Attorney General Letitia James
Image via Shutterstock

The Labor Department’s new rule could make as much as 75% of American workers ineligible for the paid sick leave and emergency family leave provisions included in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit this week against the Trump administration, challenging rules that could make as much as 75% of American workers ineligible for paid sick leave and emergency family leave during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lawsuit comes after the Department of Labor issued a new guidance earlier this month drastically reducing the number of American workers who are eligible to receive paid leave from their employers under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), one of the recently passed coronavirus relief laws. 

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James filed her lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, where she also filed a motion for summary judgment, requesting that the Court block the Trump administration’s regulations and restore the law to its “intended effect.” James said the Labor Department’s regulations risk denying critical financial support to struggling Americans, making it more likely they feel pressure to work and are ultimately exposed to the unnecessary spread of COVID-19.

“The paid sick leave and emergency family leave provisions of the FFCRA were enacted to protect public health and to provide economic security to working families,” James said in a statement. “The Trump Administration’s rule makes it harder for New Yorkers and Americans throughout the country to claim these paid benefits, which unnecessarily puts more workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19. I will fight to prevent that from happening.”

The FFCRA, passed in March, was intended to provide two weeks of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family leave to workers while reimbursing employers for the cost via tax credits. The purpose of the law was to incentivize employers to keep workers on payroll while simultaneously encouraging sick workers to stay home and continue getting paid so that they did not have to choose between their paychecks and their health.

The U.S. is the only developed nation in the world without federally-guaranteed paid sick leave. Under the newly passed law, as many as 61 million American workers were expected to be eligible for paid sick leave or emergency leave. The Labor Department’s new guidelines, however, effectively gut the law’s effectiveness. 

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Companies with fewer than 50 employees can now choose not to provide paid leave for child care if doing so would “cause the small employer to cease operating,” if the absence of workers requesting such leave would “pose a financial substantial risk to the financial health or operational capacity” of the small business, or if the company cannot find other workers “able, willing, and qualified” to fill in for the employee seeking leave. 

In her lawsuit, James contends the Labor Department’s rule violates the law by adding new guidelines that were not in the original legislation, such as a measure allowing employers to deny paid sick leave and emergency family leave simply if businesses determine they don’t have work for the employee to do. James is also arguing that the rule, which allows employers to deny healthcare providers paid leave, includes a wide variety of otherwise eligible workers in an “unlawfully broad” definition of “health care provider.”

She also states that the department exceeded its authority by adding another measure that prevents workers from taking paid leave without having provided documentation to their employer and received their employer’s consent. 

“The availability of paid leave to workers was a central component of the Congressional response to the coronavirus pandemic,” James wrote in her motion for summary judgment. “But [the Labor Department] issued a Final Rule that so narrows employees’ eligibility, and that so burdens employees’ entitlement to paid leave, as to undermine the critical statutory goals of public safety and economic security.” 

The coronavirus has infected roughly 640,000 Americans and killed nearly 31,000 people. New York state has emerged as the nation’s worst hotspot, with nearly one-third of all confirmed COVID-19 cases coming from the state. More than 11,500 New Yorkers have already died from the virus.