As the end of summer approaches, many companies are struggling with the uncertainty surrounding the availability of employees with school-aged children. 2019 Wisconsin Act 185, enacted and effective as of April 15, 2020, provided a framework for establishing a return by students to in-person attendance. Pursuant to the requirements contained within the Act, both the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Department of Public Instruction were required by June 30, 2020, to provide certain guidance to the state pertaining to business or school operations on a go-forward basis.
The WEDC’s report identified three priorities for the state. First, the state must “assure access and affordability” to unemployed individuals of “short-term, high-value credentials and longer-term degrees” so that individuals within the service industry could transition to other work. Second, the agency urged resource allocation to strengthen statewide access to high-speed broadband internet, for the benefit of both remote workers and students. Finally, Wisconsin must support innovation by providing equity and other incentives to entrepreneurs and startups. The state Legislature has yet to take up any of the major initiatives as set forth in the report.
Ben Pliskie, U.W. 2001, is the founder of Red Oak Law, LLC in New Berlin, where he practices in business law, estate planning and probate, and real estate.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction issued its own report providing guidance for reopening schools on an in-person basis. DPI’s report assumes the virus will be in circulation for at least the next 12-18 months and that future waves of the virus could result in further closures. The agency provides a number of options for each school district to consider when crafting its plans for the 2020-21 school year, including opting among traditional in-person, distance, and remote class settings, as well as shifting between a standard week, four-day week, two-day rotation, or alternate week rotation for in-person attendance. Many of the specifics as to the reopening plans are left to the individual school districts to establish, but one of the key, overarching components inherent in the DPI recommendations is the need for each district to maintain flexibility.
This required flexibility, along with the variations in reopening plans among individual school districts, makes it extremely difficult for businesses to anticipate employee availability heading into the fall and winter of 2020. Adding to the confusion, the Federal First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which sets forth requirements as to paid sick leave and paid extended family leave for employees, is currently scheduled to expire Dec. 31, 2020. The United States Department of Labor has issued a series of comments providing guidance as to these and other related rules, but companies are nonetheless flying blind as to what the requirements for covered employers will be next year.
Employers are in the unenviable position of maintaining flexibility, complying with state and federal law, and keeping their businesses operational at an acceptable level. Employers should update handbooks and policies to provide guidelines and requirements related to employee needs in the event that their children must stay home from school. Finally, employers (directly or through their counsel) should continue to monitor communications from the U.S. Department of Labor and Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development to ensure continued compliance with federal and state regulations as to this issue. By taking a proactive approach in planning for employee absences caused by school district attendance policies, businesses will be better prepared for some of the looming uncertainties this fall.
This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Business Law Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Business Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.