Massachusetts Moves Towards Making COVID-Related Sick Leave Mandatory

With COVID threats dissipating but not yet gone, Massachusetts is moving toward enacting a law that would require employers to provide sick leave that is targeted to deal solely with virus issues, from the effects of vaccines to bouts with the illness itself. While a bill to this effect was passed by the Massachusetts Legislature, it was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker. His intent, however, was not to kill the law but to modify it before it is enacted. The new law, if approved and signed, will add 40 additional hours to the 40 hours of annual sick leave that Massachusetts employees already enjoy under law.

Sick leave for COVID-19 was approved by the Legislature as part of a broader bill that the Governor in fact signed. Among its provisions is one employers will broadly support: the holding of unemployment compensation rates at their 2020 levels so that otherwise steep increases caused by COVID-19 can be avoided, at least for now. To offset the lost revenue to some degree, employers will be required to pay additional taxes on wages in 2021 and 2022. But Gov. Baker vetoed the portion of that same bill that provided mandatory sick leave for COVID issues. In doing so, he sent the Legislature a memorandum outlining his general support for the leave but asking that several modifications be made to it. Included in the Governor’s wish list are:

  1. That 40 hours of sick leave be available for employees to self-isolate due to COVID, seek a medical diagnosis or medical care for it, obtain the vaccine, or comply with a quarantine order. Use of the leave will not affect sick leave granted to employees under Massachusetts’ 2015 sick leave statute;
  2. That workers can use leave to care for a family member who needs to self-isolate or requires COVID-related care;
  3. That employees on sick leave for COVID events be paid their weekly wages up to a maximum of $850, with reimbursement to employers through a newly created state leave program or an existing federal tax credit;
  4. That employer administrative requirements be minimized; and
  5. That the law parallel a federal program now in effect so that employers who participate in it will be compliant with Massachusetts law.

Under the federal COVID relief law that passed shortly after President Biden took office, employers have the option to provide paid sick leave to their employees for qualifying COVID absences. They can take payroll tax credits to cover the costs. This is a carryover from last year’s Families First law, which mandated paid sick and family leave during the COVID crisis. While the mandate expired on December 31, 2020, employers who opt to provide paid sick leave benefits for up to two weeks can still take tax credits to cover their expenses through September 30, 2021. In Massachusetts, employees who require extended medical leaves are separately eligible to be paid during their absences (up to $850 weekly) by the Department of Family and Medical Leave, which evaluates leave applications, determines eligibility, and makes payments directly to approved employees.