Public Act 101-0633 (HB 2455), amends the Unemployment Insurance Act by doing a number of important things. Of particular interest is the temporary suspension of eligibility for unemployment benefits during academic breaks. Normally, academic personnel (e.g., employees of public school districts) are not eligible for unemployment benefits during academic break periods (e.g., spring break, winter break and summer break) if they performed services for the employer immediately prior to the academic break and have a reasonable assurance that they will continue to perform services for the employer after the break. For the period beginning March 15, 2020 through December 31, 2020, the law appears to remove that restriction to eligibility for unemployment benefits for employees of educational institutions or educational service agencies who perform services in capacities other than instructional, research, or principal administration. Of immediate concern, such removal would render employees in these categories (e.g., for employees who are custodians, teacher’s aides, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, clerical workers, etc.) eligible for unemployment benefits over the summer break even if they were not expected to work over the summer break.
To receive these benefits, the employee must otherwise be eligible under the IDES rules. While the IDES has the authority to relax the requirement that the employee be actively seeking work during the period of “unemployment,” they have not done so yet. Thus, an argument can still be made that the employee must be able to meet the actively seeking work requirements to be eligible.
Note that depending on how an employer pays IDES for unemployment benefits (i.e., makes payroll contributions or reimburses) this new law could increase an employer’s cost for unemployment benefits. Please consult your legal counsel if you have questions.
- Carefully review unemployment notices from the IDES and protest unemployment if a valid basis exists. For example, review the time period for which the employee is seeking benefits as all school district staff were paid for “work” through the end of the academic school year pursuant to the March 17, 2020 joint statement by Governor Pritzker, Illinois Education Association, Illinois Federation of Teachers, Illinois Association of School Administrators, Illinois Principals Association, and Illinois State Board of Education and Executive Order 2020-15.
- Also, always remember, a valid protest may exist if an employee actually resigned or refused to work during a period for which he/she is seeking unemployment benefits.
Public Act 101-0633 (HB 2455) also amends the Workers’ Occupational Diseases Act in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, the amendments create a rebuttable presumption in proceedings before the Workers’ Compensation Commission that a front-line worker’s contraction of COVID-19 is causally connected to his or her employment. In other words, front-line workers are presumed to have contracted COVID-19 by virtue of their employment for workers’ compensation purposes. COVID-19 front-line workers include, in relevant part, “any individuals employed by essential businesses and operations as defined in Executive Order 2020-10 dated March 20, 2020.” This necessarily encompasses school district employees who are required to encounter members of the general public and who, generally speaking, work in employment locations of more than 15 employees.
However, an employer may overcome this presumption by submitting certain evidence, including the following: 1) the employee was working from his or her home, or was on leave from employment, or some combination thereof, for a period of 14 or more consecutive days before contraction of the disease; 2) the employer was engaging in and applying to the fullest extent possible industry-specific workplace sanitation, social distancing, and updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) or Illinois Department of Public Health (“IDPH”) health and safety practices; or 3) the employee was exposed to COVID-19 by an alternate source.
- Document, document, document. To the extent that your district has employees working remotely, maintain logs to track when employees are actually in your buildings versus working remotely. Document your district’s policies and practices that comport with CDC/IDPH guidelines — for example, a sanitation checklist for each building that provides for a cleaning schedule for high traffic areas or with surfaces with repeated contact (doors handles, keypads, desks, etc.)
- Provide employees with personal protective equipment in accordance with the updated guidance from the CDC/IDPH. At a minimum, this should include face coverings. Hand sanitizer should be made widely available throughout all buildings.
- Districts should contact their workers’ compensation carrier/broker to determine if additional recommendations are being made.
The changes to both laws went into effect June 5, 2020.
Please contact any of the attorneys in our Labor/Personnel Department with any questions.