What to know about your leave options if you're not ready to return to work

Getty Images

Following weeks of partial shutdown to curb the spread of coronavirus, government officials and business leaders across the country are rolling out plans to bring their labor force back to the workplace. As of Wednesday, every state has partially reopened in some capacity. And for the 18 million workers who lost their jobs temporarily in April, including those on furlough, reopening announcements are resulting in calls from their employer that it's time to get back to work.

But with the pandemic impacting areas of the country and communities unevenly, not everyone is eager to get back to business as usual.

Depending on your situation and how Covid-19 has affected you personally, you may have options to remain on leave and not return to work in-person, at least temporarily. Here's what to know.

Your paid sick leave options

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed in March expands paid leave options to workers, though they're only available if you work for a company with fewer than 500 employees. Some health-care workers and emergency responders are exempt from coverage. Independent contractors aren't covered under the act.

Through the legislation's new Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act, you can receive two weeks off, or 80 hours, at full pay, up to $511 per day, if you're diagnosed with the coronavirus or directed by a health official to self-quarantine. This includes people who have an underlying medical condition or are immunocompromised and have been advised by their doctor that they should stay home.

If you can't work because you're caring for another person who is sick or providing child care while school or day-care facilities are closed, you can take two weeks off at two-thirds of your pay, up to $200 per day. Some businesses with fewer than 50 employees can opt out of providing this paid leave if you're using it specifically for child care.

Pay is calculated based on your full pay or the applicable minimum wage in your state, whichever is higher. And if you work part-time, your pay will be calculated based on the average number of hours you work over a two-week period.

You can only receive two weeks total of emergency paid sick leave, or 80 working hours, under the response act. So for example, if you take two weeks off because you're diagnosed with coronavirus, and then you have to later on care for a sick household member, you'll still only qualify for two weeks of paid leave under Families First. But if you already have paid time off through your company, you can't be required to exhaust those benefits before you're allowed to tap into federally provided sick leave.

If you become seriously ill as a result of the coronavirus and have guidance from your doctor that you are unable to work or telework, you may qualify for short-term disability leave from your company. There's usually a week-long waiting period before benefits kick in, which can replace around 60% to 75% of your income. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median length of disability coverage is 26 weeks.

Your paid family leave options

The Families First legislation also establishes the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act, which allows parents to take up to 12 weeks of leave if they can't work because of child-care responsibilities while schools and day cares are closed. The first two weeks are unpaid, but you can use your two weeks of emergency paid sick leave from above at two-thirds your normal pay, or tap into any accrued vacation or sick days from your employer to fill the gap. The remaining 10 weeks are paid at two-thirds your normal rate, up to $200 per day.

This type of leave can be taken intermittently if you and your employer agree to it. So if you can't secure child care for two days out of the week, you may be able to take paid leave twice a week until you've exhausted 12 weeks worth of leave.

This expanded family leave is available only to people who've been employed for at least 30 calendar days, and some small businesses with fewer than 50 employees can opt out of providing this coverage. If you've already taken time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in the past 12 months, the amount of time you can take off during the pandemic will be reduced by that amount out of the 12 total weeks.

Your family leave will be paid under the Families First act if you're using it to care for a child. If you tap your traditional FMLA leave for your own illness or to care for a sick family member, and not for child care, your time off will be unpaid.

For paid child care leave, you'll have to submit documentation to your employer, who will then have to prove the claim in order to receive tax credits from the IRS to cover your paid leave. That could be as simple as an email that your child's school or day care is shut down, or proof that you've tried to secure child care in your area but are unable because open facilities are at capacity.

This extended paid family leave should also apply to parents who usually have a nanny, au pair or even a grandparent care for their child, but can no longer use those options during the pandemic, says Jennifer Hader, the director of product, disability, absence management and paid leave at Guardian Life.

You'll generally just need to provide your employer with the name of your care provider and a statement that the person or facility is no longer able to care for your child, Hader tells CNBC Make It.

How to find out your options for your specific employer

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act went into effect on April 1.

In early May, the New York Times reported that nearly half of Americans had heard very little or nothing about the various paid leave benefits under the Families First relief act, according to a survey by the Morning Consult. Another survey indicated just 28% of business leaders covered by the new law were actively providing it to employees.

So why are so many workers in the dark about their paid leave options?

"Under the Department of Labor guidance, the employer has to take affirmative steps to advise employees of their rights under the new law," says David Barron, a labor and employment attorney with Cozen O'Connor. What the guidelines don't spell out is how employers have to provide this information.

Traditionally, Barron says, employers just have to post this kind of information in a public area of the workplace, such as posting a flyer in a break room. But with the majority of people working remotely or sheltering at home, employers are likely sending these updates via email or posting it to the company intranet, and the information could get lost in the fray.

"This has come very fast at employers," Hader adds. "Everybody is trying to understand the new regulation, especially employers in multiple states and municipalities."

Barron recommends workers who need to access their paid leave should check their eligibility against the Department of Labor requirements to see if their employer qualifies. Then bring those materials to a meeting with a human resources representative. You'll also want to see if you're granted paid sick time based on where you live — some states and cities mandate certain employers provide paid sick time to qualifying employees.

As far as what you'll be entitled to under Families First, "it's pretty straightforward," Barron says. "You'll get either two weeks or 12 weeks. If someone says something different, they're likely mistaken."

What Covid-19 health disparities mean to six black medical professionals
What Covid-19 health disparities mean to six black medical professionals

Unemployment insurance could help parents and at-risk workers

If you've exhausted all of your leave benefits through federal legislation, as well as your state, city and company, you may qualify for unemployment insurance depending on why you're unable to return to work.

The coronavirus stimulus bill passed in late March dramatically expanded the number of workers who qualify for unemployment under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. That includes workers who are unable to work because they're providing child care while schools and facilities are shut down due to the pandemic, as well as individuals who've been directed by a health authority to self-quarantine, says Michele Evermore, senior policy analyst the National Employment Law Project.

People with asthma, lung disease, heart conditions, diabetes and compromised immune systems, as well as anyone over the age of 65, are considered at high risk for severe illness from the coronavirus. These individuals should be able to provide a doctor's note about their reason for not returning to the workplace, and they should qualify for unemployment assistance, Evermore says.

Workers who receive PUA benefits are covered for 39 weeks of assistance, plus a $600 weekly boost through July 31.

You can't cite a general fear of exposure to the coronavirus or turn down "suitable work." If you do so, your failure to show up to work will be considered "job abandonment" or quitting voluntarily, and you won't be eligible for unemployment benefits.

However, if your employer isn't providing a safe work environment laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other state and local guidelines, you may have a case for refusing to return to a dangerous work environment. At minimum, employers must provide proper hand-washing stations, additional sanitation and personal protective equipment such as masks or gloves and following social distancing recommendations.

If you refuse work for reasonable cause, you may still qualify for unemployment benefits. Remember, however, that if you're on unemployment in this scenario, you'll be considered completely separated from your employer. You'll no longer receive employer-sponsored benefits, such as health insurance, and you can't expect to be rehired after your unemployment benefit window is over.

More options could be on the way

The latest Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act would expand some of the paid leave policies laid out in previous legislation. Namely, it would make paid leave available to workers at organizations with 500 or more employees, offer full wage replacement in more circumstances, require stricter safety guidelines from OSHA and extend paid leave coverage by a year until December 2021.

The act was passed in the House on May 15 and is now with the Senate.

Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

Don't miss:

What it's like to have the Covid-19 coronavirus
What it's like to have the Covid-19 coronavirus