D.C. Council Moves Swiftly to Provide Relief for Employees Affected by COVID-19

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On March 11, 2020, District of Columbia (D.C.) Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of emergency and a public health emergency in response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. D.C. employers began laying off employees almost immediately, with service, retail, and hospitality workers being especially hard hit. The D.C. Council enacted generous provisions within B23-0718 – COVID-19 Response Emergency Amendment Act of 2020 for affected employees including unemployment insurance and grant opportunities. D.C. workers who are experiencing a sudden financial crisis can expect broad assistance during this unusual time in our country.

No work-search requirement

Unemployed workers are usually required to continue seeking work whenever they experience a job loss in order to qualify for and continue to receive unemployment benefits. Employees commonly submit detailed information about their job search and the outcome of their applications on a weekly basis. The COVID-19 Response Emergency Amendment Act of 2020 has no such requirement. Employees are still relieved from the work-search requirement even if their employer has provided a date certain for returning to work or an employee expects to continue employment with their current employer. Affected employers qualify if: they are quarantined or isolated by the Department of Health or other District or federal agency, or self-quarantined or self-isolated in compliance with guidance/recommendations from the Department of Health or other District or federal agency or medical professional, or an employee of a business that has ceased operations or reduced hours due to an order or guidance from the Mayor or Department of Health. An employee must provide reasonable documentation demonstrating that their unemployment or reduced hours occurred as the result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Expanded Good Cause definition

Unemployment benefits are commonly reduced or denied if an employee leaves a job without good cause. This emergency measure expands the definition of good cause when it is associated with the current health crisis. Good cause is shown if: 1) an employer fails to timely comply with a written directive from the Mayor or the Department of Health for public safety measures to protect employees or the public; or 2) an employer requests that the employee be present at work despite being quarantined or isolated per guidance/recommendation by the Department of Health or other District or federal agency, or the employee is self-isolated per guidance/recommendation by the Department of Health or other District or federal agency or medical professional.

Amended D.C. Family and Medical Leave Act

The District of Columbia Family and Medical Leave Act of 1990 (FMLA) was amended to expand requirements for medical leave. The COVID-19 Response Emergency Amendment Act of 2020 allows an employee to qualify for FMLA medical leave during a declared public health emergency. An employee does not have to satisfy the one year of employment and 1,000 hours work requirement if the employee was ordered or recommended to quarantine or isolate by the Department of Health or other District or federal agency or medical professional.

Declaration-of-emergency leave

If an employee is unable to work due to a public health emergency period declared by the Mayor, they are entitled to declaration-of-emergency (DOE) leave. A recommendation from the Mayor, Department of Health or other District or federal agency or medical professional that the employee self-isolate or during a government mandated quarantine, the declaration of the public health emergency shall be sufficient certification for the DOE leave. There is no minimum number of employees required to be employed for an employee to qualify for DOE leave, unlike the original provision.

Public health emergency small business loan program

Upon the declaration of a public health emergency by the Mayor, the Mayor may issue a grant or loan to eligible small businesses. The Mayor must receive an application from the small business that demonstrates the financial distress caused to the business by the public health emergency. The grant might be used for the payment of employee wages and benefits, operating costs or the repayment of a small business loan. It is notable that an eligible small business includes a non-profit entity or an independent contractor or self-employed individual determined ineligible for unemployment insurance.

I lost my job or my hours were reduced. What should I do now?

If you are an employee of a D.C. employer that has experienced unemployment or a reduction in work, you should immediately apply for unemployment insurance. You can apply online with the Department of Employment Services and choose the “file for benefits” option to start a new claim. Alternatively, you can call the Customer Navigation Center at (202) 724-7000, Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to file a claim. You can submit a claim for unemployment insurance by mail, however, online and telephone are the quickest ways to apply. Do not go in person to file for unemployment insurance at any of the American Job Centers (e.g., in Ward 7 on Minnesota Avenue, NE) because they are closed until March 31, 2020. D.C. has planned for emergency contingencies such as the current health crisis, so funding is available for unemployment insurance. If the Mayor cannot pay unemployment insurance from the District Unemployment Fund or other jurisdictional funds, the Mayor may make payment from any other source. Effective January 5, 2020, the current Maximum Weekly Benefit Amount in the District of Columbia was increased to $444 for employees.