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City joins county with expanded sick leave pay

Friday, April 10, 2020 by Jo Clifton

City employees will be eligible to receive 100 percent of their regular pay if they take emergency sick leave as a result of Covid-19, retroactive to March 15, under a resolution approved by City Council on Thursday.

The resolution, similar to one approved by Travis County commissioners, affirms and expands upon decisions already made by City Manager Spencer Cronk.

Under the resolution, sponsored by Council members Kathie Tovo, Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen, Greg Casar and Pio Renteria, employees who used accrued leave because of the coronavirus between March 15 and 31 may now request that the leave be recorded as paid emergency sick leave.

Both the city and county were acting in response to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which Congress approved on March 18. That legislation expands a 1993 law called the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. Under the new law, employees would receive two-thirds pay, but both the city and the county have agreed to expand that amount to 100 percent.

Emergency paid sick leave is available to both full- and part-time employees as well as temporary, seasonal workers and interns and public safety employees, according to a memo Cronk sent to all city employees on March 27.

At this point, the new law is an unfunded mandate for governmental entities and both the city and the county will be looking for information about tax credits from the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service.

Employees who must care for children because schools are closed and child care is unavailable are eligible for the emergency leave for up to 12 weeks. The city is also providing child care for essential employees with dependents over five years old if those employees must leave home to work.

Carol Guthrie, business manager for AFSCME Local 1624, told the Austin Monitor Thursday, “We know there’s a lot of changes to the Department of Labor regulations as we’re going through this. It is (the city’s) intent to pay at 100 percent but they want to make sure that critical services are still provided.”

It is especially important for people whose paychecks are at the lower end of the pay scale that they receive 100 percent of their pay, Guthrie said.

She noted that there was some concern at the city that “everybody would sign up for this. We don’t think this is going to happen. … We want to make sure there are employees … to provide critical services to the community. … Right now we’re trying to get as many people teleworking as we possibly can. … Part of the federal guidelines also authorizes two weeks of emergency leave. People can take the two weeks but we’re advising them not to because it is for people who have tested positive” for the virus or are sick.

One limiting factor noted in Cronk’s memo is that the first 10 days of leave may be unpaid, although employees are allowed to use accrued leave, and under some circumstances can ask for emergency paid sick leave.

Guthrie said, “We want to make sure we have very few employees go into a leave-without-pay status. We’re working with the city any way that we can to make sure they don’t take off without leave.”

There were just a few moments of tension during the Council discussion of the resolution, which originally stated that the manager should return to Council to seek approval of proposed exemptions from the expanded sick leave benefits. Cronk told Council he would prefer to be able to take action when necessary and report back to them, as opposed to waiting for a special called meeting. Those meetings are currently being conducted by video conference and telephone, with numerous technical glitches.

Photo by John Flynn.

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