American Rescue Plan Provides Federal Employees With Additional COVID-Related Leave Benefits

On March 11, 2021, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a COVID-19 relief package that, in addition to its higher-profile provisions such as stimulus checks, provides up to 600 hours or 15 weeks of COVID-19-related Emergency Federal Employee Leave (“EFEL”) for federal employees who are unable to work under any of the following circumstances:

  1. The employee is subject to a Federal, State, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19;
  2. The employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19;
  3. The employee is caring for an individual who is subject to such an order or has been so advised;
  4. The employee is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking a medical diagnosis;
  5. The employee is caring for a child if the child’s school has been closed, if the child’s school requires or allows a virtual instruction model, or the child’s childcare provider is unavailable due to COVID-19 precautions;
  6. The employee is experiencing any other substantially similar conditions;
  7. The employee is caring for a family member with a mental or physical disability or who is 55 or older and incapable of self-care, if the care facility is closed or the direct care provider is unavailable due to COVID-19; or
  8. The employee is obtaining immunization related to COVID-19 or is recovering from any injury, disability, illness, or condition related to such immunization.

This is significantly broader than the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s (“OPM”) previous guidance regarding the use of “weather and safety leave” in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Rescue Plan both expands the circumstances in which federal employees are eligible for COVID-19-related paid leave, which now includes paid leave for family-related obligations and getting vaccinated, and extends the length of time they can take it.

Now for the fine print:

  • EFEL is only available between March 11, 2021 and September 30, 2021, so eligible federal employees need to use it quickly or lose the opportunity.
  • Although federal employees receiving EFEL are to be paid the same hourly rate as they would receive for other leave payments, there is a pay cap of $2,800 per bi-weekly pay period, which would affect some GS-9 and higher-graded employees, depending on geographic area and locality pay rates.
  • The time an employee spends on and receives EFEL does not count towards the employee’s retirement eligibility or benefit.
  • Finally, employees should always be mindful that although agencies may reasonably inquire into employees’ medical conditions and require certain medical examinations to ensure a safe workplace, there are limitations on what agencies may ask or require. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has published (and periodically updates) helpful guidance about how to comply with existing laws regarding what agencies can and cannot do during the COVID-19 pandemic.

OPM is responsible for administering the EFEL fund that will finance leave granted under the American Rescue Plan and is expected to issue guidance on how agencies should implement EFEL. OPM has not issued that guidance as of the date of this blog. Some agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service, have implemented interim processes for administering EFEL. We will update this post as we have more information from OPM.

If you have questions about your eligibility for EFEL or paid COVID-19 leave, or you are concerned that your agency is not properly administering COVID-19 leave, please contact the experienced employment attorneys at Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, P.C.