Yes, COVID-19 continues to be a devastating virus. Once thought to be no more serious than the seasonal flu, soon after the virus reached the U.S., it was confirmed that this was a highly contagious and, sadly, potentially deadly virus. In response to this, air travel from abroad was shut down, and business closures followed. New England states weren’t the first states to see an increase in cases and so most governors initially resisted implementing state of emergency or stay at home orders. In fact, NH was one of the last New England states to impose public health restrictions on businesses and gatherings.
But by late March, the Granite State effectively shut down except for essential businesses. Corned beef and Guinness were among the first economic casualties as St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were canceled. The state’s nation-leading unemployment rate of 2.3% quickly evaporated as shuttered businesses furloughed employees. The unemployment rate skyrocketed to 18% and higher in some places. The closing of state parks, beaches, trails and even borders to neighboring states reflected the new serious reality of the virus. Maple syrup season was disrupted by unusual late winter and early spring weather. Ski resorts closed early as snow melted and travel was curtailed. As in most states, toilet paper, Lysol wipes, and hand-sanitizer as well as canned soup, chicken and pasta replaced gold and silver as the most valuable commodities.
After the Granite State became the Wuhan Province of politics, ushering in the contentious 2020 presidential race, the tone and temperament of campaigns went downhill. For the second year in a row, the state’s Republican governor vetoed all of the workplace bills passed by the Democratic House and Senate. That meant bills promoting paid family leave, banning credit and criminal checks, establishing a minimum wage nearly double the federal level and requiring paid sick and vacation leave upon separation were sent to study committee, shelved or outright killed.
In the world of New England sports, the Patriots, Celtics and Bruins were unceremoniously bounced from their respective playoffs. Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay. (Seriously?).Watching sports with empty stadiums gave us a sense of what it must be like to be a Cincinnati Bengals or Baltimore Orioles fan.
Beaches, golf courses and parks opened by mid-summer with social distancing procedures in place. Just when we thought “Well, we can finally go out to dinner and visit with friends,” COVID numbers spiked again and indoor dining and other restrictions were reinstated. Initially travel within New England states was permitted but then Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont re-imposed quarantine restrictions. New Hampshire answered with its own restrictions but then permitted a test-out option but only for travel-based quarantine, not other quarantine requirements. Confused? Join the club.
Back in the workplace, HR professionals had to deal with furloughs, layoffs and remote work arrangements. Then Congress hurriedly passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), leaving HR professionals little time to read it, understand it and translate it for others. It was like asking a rookie to understand a Beli-chick playbook in less than a week.
Just as employers were getting a handle on FFCRA and corresponding U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) guidance, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was adopted, boosting weekly unemployment benefits by $600 on top of state benefits. Again, HR professionals had to stay informed, understand the evolving federal and state laws, manage paid leave, maintain a safe workplace, communicate with employees, deal with employees who didn’t feel comfortable coming back to work, manage those working remotely and referee employees resentful of each other.
They had to create new policies, amend others and enforce them all. They also had to be sure that office toilet paper and hand-sanitizer didn’t mysteriously disappear overnight. Just when things seemed to be somewhat manageable, wage and hour and OSHA inspectors knocked on the door like relatives inviting themselves for a holiday visit. Yup, courageous and dedicated HR professionals tried their best but they were often overwhelmed.
The End of 2020 As We Know It
After 10 months of Zoom and related virtual meetings, many of us need to refresh the artwork on the wall (including the “2020: Dumpster Fire” poster) or books on the shelf appearing in the background. Now that the 2020 elections are over (they are over right?) how does the end of 2020 look? It’s a mixed bag.
On the one hand, unemployment rates in NH have dropped considerably. Many businesses adapted to limited travel, remote work and less office density. Holiday parties were shelved or went virtual, which was music to the ears of most HR professionals (no need to lock up the copy machines or hold emergency harassment training refreshers). The stock market has reached new highs after the dramatic drop in March. That means 401(k) statements are more like holiday cards than credit card bills. The FFCRA leave requests have leveled off, and businesses have started hiring again. In mid-December the first of several COVID-19 vaccines was approved by the FDA and distribution is already well underway to nursing homes, healthcare workers and first responders. Most Americans should have the vaccine by late spring or early summer.
On the other hand, PPP audits have started to reveal fraud or mismanagement. Phones at USDOL have been ringing off of the hook with FLSA, FMLA, FFCRA and OSHA complaints, meaning an inspector might be visiting. Congress is considering a new stimulus package that could augment unemployment benefits again, and they could also extend the FFCRA into the new year.
And in the Granite State, masks are now the norm, even outside, and schools went partially or fully remote. That means more employees may need to work from home or draw upon PTO or FFCRA benefits. Finally, federal and state public health officials discouraged holiday travel and gatherings, causing employers to decline PTO requests to avoid employee quarantines after travel or other COVID exposure outside of work.
Preview of 2021
While New Year’s celebrations were very different this year, one thing is for sure, most are glad to see 2020 in the rearview mirror. While there are still challenges ahead, there is good reason for optimism.
We will soon know the composition of Congress and how it will work with the new president. If the Republicans retain their majority in the Senate, some think there will be a stalemate, but others believe there will be opportunities for compromise.
The Biden Administration is likely to roll back Trump-era immigration restrictions. This could mean it will be easier for skilled foreign workers to fill vacant positions. The National Labor Relations Board may tilt back in favor of employees. There could be a push to boost the federal minimum wage. Federal discrimination laws could be further expanded to include LGBTQ protections. And, affirmative action laws and regulations could be resurrected. As regulators get used to FFCRA and related issues, there could be more compliance audits. For now, though, it seems federal agencies are focused more on ensuring safety rather than assessing of steep fines.
In NH, workplace bills are already being filed as the new Republican majorities in the House and Senate could be more employer friendly. One of the early bills proposed includes a COVID safe harbor or limit on liability for employers. The legislature may also take another run at establishing a Right to Work law in NH.
Gov. Chris Sununu remains committed to resisting an income or sales tax, but perhaps he will cave on his opposition to more liberal marijuana laws given the state’s budget deficit and how NH is the only New England state that hasn’t legalized recreational pot. The governor’s COVID Task Force is still monitoring cases but seems to be open to lifting some of the rigid quarantine restrictions with a test-out option after seven days of traveling out of state. The CDC just announced similar changes. While winter may bring the dreaded surge in cases, advances in prevention, treatments and therapeutics have helped keep the virus from overwhelming hospitals.
Finally, the announcement that vaccines with 90-95% effectiveness are starting to be distributed has been welcomed.
Challenges and changes are ahead, but the resilience shown over the last 10 months suggests that, like the Red Sox returning to Fort Meyers in late February, better days are ahead. Now if only binging on Netflix could help us lose weight this winter.
Attorney Jim Reidy is a partner at Sheehan Phinney where he is chair of the Labor and Employment law practice group. For more information, visit sheehan.com.