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DOL Clarifies the Families First Coronavirus Response Act Small Business Exemption

On April 1, 2020 the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) announced that the Department's Wage and Hour Division posted unpublished regulations on the recently-enacted Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). The published version of the regulations is scheduled to be available on April 6, 2020. The long-awaited regulations will provide covered employers with additional clarity on their obligations to provide Expanded Family and Medical Leave under the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFMLEA) and Paid Sick Leave under the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA). The regulations to the FFCRA will remain in effect from April 1, 2020 to December 31, 2020.

Significantly, the FFCRA regulations explain how small business employers may elect an exemption from certain provisions of the FFCRA. This exception for small businesses is only an exception from the obligation to provide paid leave to an employee who requests leave due to school or childcare closures. Small businesses are still obligated to provide Emergency Paid Sick Leave under the FFCRA to employees who need leave because: they themselves are subject to a quarantine or an isolation order; they have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine; they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and are seeking a medical diagnosis; or they are caring for an individual who is subject to a quarantine order or has been advised to quarantine. There is no exception for small businesses from this requirement. 

In order to take advantage of the exemption, an officer of the employer must document that he or she has determined that providing leave to care for a child would jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern because:

  • the requested leave would result in the small business's expenses and financial obligations to exceed available business revenues and cause the small business to cease operating at minimal capacity; or

  • the absence of the employee or employees requesting leave would entail a substantial risk to the financial health or operational capabilities of the business because of their specialized skills, knowledge of the business or responsibilities; or

  • there are not sufficient workers who are able, willing and qualified, and who will be available at the time and place needed, to perform the labor or services provided by the employee or employees requesting leave, and those labor or services are needed for the small business to operate at minimal capacity.

In its preliminary discussion of the regulations, the USDOL indicates that "the employer may deny paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave only to those otherwise eligible employees whose absence would cause the small employer's expenses and financial obligations to exceed available business revenue, pose a substantial risk, or prevent the small employer from operating at minimum capacity, respectively." This suggests that small business employers who wish to utilize the exemption must determine its availability on a case-by-case basis.

Moreover, the regulations also state that regardless of whether a small business employer exempts one or more employees, the small business employer is still required to post the FFCRA notice. This is consistent with the preliminary discussion indicating that the exemption is to be determined on a case-by-case basis and limited to the leave types for which the exemption is available.

While use of the exemption must be made on an individual basis, these regulations also make clear that a small business employer will not be required to apply for the exemption each time it is used. Instead of sending documentation to the USDOL, the employer's officer must prepare documentation explaining that one of the above-listed criteria has been met. An employer should only use the small business exemption based upon good faith and a carefully made determination that it qualifies. Any documentation prepared in support of the election must be retained for at least four years. 

In determining when and how to elect this exemption, small business employers should keep a close eye on the number of employees they employ. As business conditions improve and employers cross the 50 employee threshold, the employer no longer qualifies for the small business exemption.

© 2020 Varnum LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 94



About this Author

Stephanie R. Setterington, labor and employment attorney, Varnum

Stephanie advises employers on a wide variety of labor and employment matters, with an emphasis on employment litigation defense, and the identification and development of best practices in the area of human resources. She has worked extensively as labor and employment counsel for publicly-traded and privately-held companies that vary from single-site businesses to multi-state or global entities. She works with each client to ensure compliance with labor and employment-related legal requirements, develop effective human resource operations, and achieve the successful...

Elizabeth Wells Skaggs, labor and employment attorney, Varnum

Beth is a partner in the labor and employment practice group, focusing employment issues and litigation. She has counseled business clients on a variety of matters affecting the workplace, including effective employee handbooks and policies, disciplinary and dispute resolution procedures, discrimination issues, disability accommodation, wage-hour matters, family medical leave, harassment prevention and litigation avoidance.  When litigation is unavoidable, Beth has significant experience representing employers under the numerous state and federal statutes that govern the...

Barbara Moore, Varnum, employment lawyer

Barbara is an associate currently working with Varnum's Labor and Employment Team. She has experience with issues related to workplace policies, discrimination in the workplace, the ADA and FMLA, and state and federal wage-hour matters. Barbara also serves the Business and Corporate Services Practice Team by providing assistance with mergers and acquisitions.

Within the community, Barbara serves as a volunteer with the Tutor Mate program and has experience working on pro bono matters.

Tiffany Snow, Varnum Law Firm, Labor and Employment Attorney Detroit MI

Tiffany is a member of the firm's Labor and Employment Team. She has a depth of experience in employment matters, having served as a senior account manager at a regional staffing firm for many years prior to obtaining her law degree. Her legal education includes a litigation and estate planning focus.

Practice Areas


Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School
Auburn Hills,...