Some local employers extend COVID-19-related leave

With the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, Dubuque Community Schools leaders wanted their employees to feel comfortable staying home when they feel sick.

So they opted to continue offering employees up to 80 hours of paid leave for virus-related reasons in 2021, though a federal provision requiring them to do so had expired.

“We just felt like it was really fair for our employees,” said Amy Hawkins, the district’s chief human resources officer. “We’re still in the pandemic. People are still getting sick with COVID or having exposures, and so it was important for us, since we did that for our employees the first part of the year, that we could extend that into the second part.”

While the federal requirement that some businesses and public employers provide workers with paid COVID-19 leave expired at the close of 2020, some local employers are taking advantage of a provision allowing them to continue offering that leave in early 2021.

Private businesses that continue offering paid virus-related leave can receive tax credits for doing so until March 31. Government employers cannot receive those tax credits, though, which makes the calculus of deciding whether to offer leave more complicated.

“We felt that we could not fiscally make that decision without there being a revenue source to cover it,” Platteville City Manager Adam Ruechel said.

Continued offering

Under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, employees of businesses with fewer than 500 workers and certain public employers were eligible for up to 80 hours of paid leave if they were quarantined or dealing with COVID-19 symptoms. They also were eligible for leave at two-thirds pay to care for a quarantined individual or a child whose school or day care was closed.

Businesses received tax credits in exchange for providing their employees with sick leave, though government employers were not eligible. That arrangement carried over into 2021, when providing virus-related leave became optional.

Kim Budde, senior vice president for human resources at Kunkel & Associates in Dubuque, said her business plans to keep offering COVID-19 leave until the tax credits expire.

“We want to be able to provide as much support as we can to our employees right now,” she said. “It’s a different time for everyone, and if someone were to get sick … we want to be as flexible as we can.”

Krista Shadley, people and culture partner at Cartegraph in Dubuque, likewise said employee flexibility was key in the decision to continue offering COVID-19 leave. She also noted that with most staff working remotely, only a few people used virus-related leave last year.

“We’re always thinking, how do we make decisions as an organization, so for us, it was an easy decision,” she said. “Why not extend it?”

Dubuque school district leaders will continue offering virus-related leave through March 31, though they are not eligible for tax credits.

“Our thinking was, maybe by the end of March, we would be vaccinated and things like that,” Hawkins said. “This is all new to all of us, so we’re just taking it one step at a time.”

Monitoring trends

City of Dubuque officials opted not to continue offering virus-related leave in 2021 in part because they would not have been eligible for tax credits. Instead, employees who do need to take time off can use their accrued sick leave and other options available to them that were in place before the pandemic, said Shelley Stickfort, the city’s director of human resources.

“We were no longer required to do it, and there was no reimbursement mechanism, and we had other means by which we could support the employees,” she said.

She said that if city officials see staff needing to take leave for virus-related reasons in larger numbers, they can always reinstate COVID-19 leave.

“We’ve elected not to extend it, but we’re monitoring it,” Stickfort said.

She recently reached out to her colleagues working in human resources for other cities and counties to ask if they planned to offer COVID-19 leave in 2021. Their responses were “a mixed bag,” she said.

“I’m sure everybody was looking at their own situation and trying to make the best decision that they could,” Stickfort said.

City of Platteville officials likewise have stopped offering COVID-19 leave. Employees who are absent from work for a virus-related issue can use accrued sick leave, and then vacation and other leave if needed. If they use all of their paid leave, they will be allowed to tap into up to 80 hours of “negative sick leave,” Ruechel said.

He said funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act helped pay for employee sick leave in 2020. But without additional relief dollars for local governments, officials didn’t feel they could continue offering dedicated COVID-19 leave.

“If we don’t have a funding source to cover those losses, we have to go back to the employee handbook, which is the norm,” Ruechel said.