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Lydia Edwards Discusses Workers’ Rights and Unemployment During COVID-19

City Councilor Lydia Edwards (District 1) recently hosted a virtual coffee hour via Facebook Live to discuss concerns about working during the COVID-19 pandemic and provide guidance to those who are currently unemployed. She was joined by Attorney Monica Halas from Greater Boston Legal Services to answer questions from residents.


Paid Sick Leave Options

In Massachusetts, most workers have the right to earn and use paid sick leave of up to 40 hours per year in the event of illness affecting the worker or the worker’s child, spouse, parent, or spouse’s parent. This sick leave must be paid if the employer has eleven or more employees. Sick leave must still be provided if an employer has less than eleven employees, however, it does not have to be paid.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides additional resources by requiring certain employers to provide paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave for employees impacted by COVID-19. Employers with less than 500 employees must provide these provisions. Employers with less than 50 employees can choose to opt out if the leave requirements would jeopardize the viability of the business. These provisions are effective through December 31, 2020.

Currently, the federal legislation leaves those who work for companies with over 500 employees ineligible for the temporary paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave. The provisions also do not apply to healthcare workers, emergency responders, and some federal workers.

Raise Up Massachusetts, a grassroots organization responsible for Massachusetts’s earned paid sick leave requirements, proposed a bill that is currently pending in the State House to assist with filling the coverage gaps for workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Unemployment Benefits

Employees who have lost their jobs or been temporarily laid off are eligible to receive unemployment benefits plus an additional $600 weekly amount as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. As of May 1st, 2020, an extra thirteen weeks of federal benefits will be applied after an individual exhausts their regular benefits.

Individuals are eligible for unemployment benefits in the event that they are totally or partially employed. A worker is not able to collect benefits if they are able to telework with pay or are receiving paid leave from their employer.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for Self-Employed, Independent Contractors, or Others Ineligible for Regular Benefits

For those typically not covered by unemployment benefits, there is the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) that will provide benefits for 39 weeks to eligible individuals plus the additional $600 weekly amount applied automatically under the CARES Act.

Those who should apply are individuals who are self-employed, independent contractors with 1099 income, those who don’t have the required $5,100 W-2 earnings from 2019 for regular unemployment benefits, individuals who work for a religious organization, those who have already used up their regular unemployment benefits, those whose regular unemployment benefits have ended, those who were working part-time, or those who were disqualified for regular unemployment benefits prior to COVID-19.

Unemployment Notices to Disregard If Received

The current system is still programmed to email certain notices to those who qualify for unemployment benefits but are not applicable at this time. These notices involve the Training Opportunities Program Application, required proof from a medical provider that outlines an individual’s inability to work, work search log that requires reporting of an individual’s job search, and request for wage information. All of these can be disregarded except the request for wage information if the monetary determination amount is incorrect or the base period wages are inaccurate.

Safety in the Workplace

Massachusetts wage laws protect employees against retaliation for voicing their concerns in the workplace. If an individual believes that their workplace is not following proper safety protocols during the coronavirus pandemic, there are several steps that can be taken in order to rectify the situation. If an individual’s employer does not listen to their employee’s valid concerns, a complaint can be made to the Attorney General’s Office.

Workers can also contact Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), an organization dedicated to ending dangerous work conditions. A confidential complaint can be filed with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) if a dangerous hazard in the workplace is perceived. Employees can also voice their concerns to the Department of Public Health.