Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
In a time where healthcare workers and first responders are needed more than ever, very few measures are in place to provide them with the support needed to remain on the frontlines. Cherokee County has reported seven cases of COVID19 as of Tuesday morning and due to the county’s location along the Tennessee border, many of those patients are being cared for by Erlanger Health Systems based out of Chattanooga, Tenn. Erlanger operates the medical facilities in Cherokee County. Several Franklin residents are employed by Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital in Murphy and via email on Monday received notice that despite working on the frontlines of the pandemic, many benefits for those employees are being temporarily suspended to cut operational costs at the hospital.
Erlanger is facing a temporary expense reduction plan, which includes furloughing some administrative employees, staffing changes, reducing overtime, suspending job recruitment for administrative positions, suspending vacation accruals, suspending 403b retirement contributions by the company, and reducing leadership pay.
In the email, employees were notified that paid time off or PTO, which is accrued based on time worked, is being suspended beginning with the current pay period. PTO balances will remain intact and accessible to employees, but any PTO that would be accrued as a result of additional hours worked during the pandemic, will not be generated. Erlanger will also no longer contribute to employee retirement plans during the indefinite suspension.
Erlanger’s suspension of PTO comes at the same time that the federal government’s relief package specifically excludes both healthcare workers and first responders from being eligible for emergency paid sick leave.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19. The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) administers and enforces the new law’s paid leave requirements. While FFCRA will provide aid to people out of work as a result of COVID19, the law specifically excludes healthcare workers and first responders, who are most at risk of contracting the virus, from being able to utilize the benefits.
The paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave provisions of the FFCRA apply to certain public employers, and private employers with fewer than 500 employees. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees may qualify for exemption from the requirement to provide leave due to school closings or child care unavailability if the leave requirements would jeopardize the viability of the business as an ongoing concern.
Under the FFCRA, an employee qualifies for paid sick time if the employee is unable to work (or unable to telework) due to a need for leave because the employee:
1) is subject to a Federal, State, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19;
2) has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine related to COVID-19;
3) is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and is seeking a medical diagnosis;
4) is caring for an individual subject or self-quarantine
5) is caring for a child whose school or place of care is closed (or child care provider is unavailable) for reasons related to COVID-19; or
6) is experiencing any other substantially-similar condition specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the Secretaries of Labor and Treasury.
While FFCRA will provide aid to many impacted by COVID19- a member of law enforcement or a healthcare worker would not be eligible and while their employer may allow them the time off if needed, there are no provisions or safety nets to pay those individuals who are out of work aside from those employees using PTO they have accrued or vacation time they have earned.
In response to FFCRA, Macon County officials sent out a memo to employees late Tuesday afternoon announcing that because the federal law leaves it up to local governments to determine whether or not healthcare workers and first responders are excluded from the Paid Sick Leave provision, Macon County leaders made the decision to ensure that any county healthcare workers or first responders will not be excluded and will be eligible for the federal benefits.