As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases balloons across the country, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (R) issued an executive order today ordering the closure of all physical premises and operations for companies that do not provide “COVID-19 Essential Services” across the Commonwealth.
In addition, the Baker Administration and Massachusetts legislature have enacted emergency reforms to the state’s unemployment insurance system, which will help employees who are out of work due to COVID-19 get immediate access to benefits. Key details of these moves are outlined below.
Closure of businesses with “non-essential” services
The Baker Administration issued COVID-19 Order No. 13, which prohibits non-essential businesses from keeping any physical workplace or facility open to workers, customers, or the public beginning at noon tomorrow (March 24) until at least April 7. The order also bans most in-person gatherings of more than 10 people. In conjunction with Order No. 13, the state issued a list of businesses that are allowed to operate as “COVID-19 Essential Services.” The list includes employers in the health care industry, law enforcement, public safety, first responders, food and agriculture, energy, water and wastewater, transportation and logistics, public works, communications and information technology, and critical manufacturing, among others. The detailed list can be found here. Employers who intend to continue operating in Massachusetts should review this list carefully and, if necessary, consult with counsel.
Employers who believe they provide essential services but are not listed can apply for an “essential service” designation by following the instructions in this link.
Emergency unemployment rules
The legislature has passed, and the Governor has signed, legislation waiving the one-week waiting period to collect unemployment benefits for any employee out of work due to the effects of COVID-19 or the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 state of emergency. This legislation is in effect for the duration of the state of emergency and for 90 days afterward. In addition, the Department of Unemployment Assistance has published COVID-19 regulatory guidance:
The DUA says that it will pay unemployment benefits if a worker is under a quarantine order, is quarantined at the direction of a medical professional, is forced to leave the job because of a reasonable risk of exposure to infection, or must leave the job to care for a family member affected by COVID-19. The workers need not provide medical documentation and must be available for work only “when and as able.”
Workers who are not working due to a coronavirus-related temporary workplace shutdown but who have a return-to-work date within four or fewer weeks will be eligible for benefits so long as (1) they remain in contact with their employers during the shutdown; and (2) they are available for any work the employer may have for them which they are capable of doing. Employers may extend this initial four-week period to eight weeks.
Employers who miss an unemployment-related deadline due to COVID-19 may be excused for “good cause,” and employers may also request extensions of up to 60 days for filing quarterly reports and paying their unemployment contributions (so long as the extenson request is received within 60 days from the original due date).
Despite these emergency measures, Massachusetts employers should keep in mind that, by and large, they remain obligated to follow the state’s complex wage payment and employment laws governing layoffs, furloughs, remote work, and office closures.
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