OLYMPIA -- The state has rolled out new rules designed to help Washington state workers who are facing financial hardship from the COVID-19 outbreak.
Inslee, speaking at a press conference in Olympia Tuesday, said these new worker protections are in addition to the steps that several of the state's largest companies have taken to help hourly employees and supporting businesses "weather this difficult period."
Telecommuting, school closures and quarantines around the state have brought a big dip in business to restaurants, movie theaters, bars, hotels and other industries, particularly in Seattle where tens of thousands of tech workers are now working from home.
As of Tuesday, there were 162 presumptive positive novel coronavirus cases in eight Washington counties. Of those, 22 have died, with 19 deaths linked to the Life Care Center of Kirkland where a major outbreak has occurred.
Inslee said the number of positive cases statewide is likely much higher, because testing for the virus has not been widely available. Epidemiologists have told the governor that whatever the number of cases is on any given day, expect that number to double within five-eight days if drastic measures aren't put in place to stop the spread.
"If you do the math it gets very disturbing," he said.
State adopts emergency rules to strengthen programs
The state's Employment Security Department has developed the following rules to go into effect today. They're in place to help relieve the burden of temporary layoffs, isolation and quarantine.
- Workers will be able to receive unemployment benefits and employers will get relief of benefit charges if an employer needs to curtail or shut down operations temporarily because a worker becomes sick and other workers need to be isolated or quarantined as a result of COVID-19.
- A worker who follows guidance issued by a medical or public health official to isolate or quarantine themselves as a result of exposure to COVID-19 and is not receiving paid sick leave from their employer, may be eligible to receive unemployment benefits.
- If a worker falls seriously ill and is forced to quit, they may qualify for Paid Family Medical Leave while ill under the existing program. Once recovered and available for work, they may apply for unemployment benefits.
- It removes the full-time requirement and expands standby ability to part time/less than full-time workers who are isolated.
“The first and best option for workers who need to miss work due to illness or quarantine is to use their employer-provided paid time off,” ESD commissioner Suzi LeVine said. “When that is not an option, an ESD program may be able to help. Accessing unemployment benefits, which provide a partial wage replacement, to address these situations is not the first choice but it is a last resort that is available for many. The last thing people need to worry about when dealing with a health crisis is how they’re going to put food on the table. These new rules build on our state’s already strong foundation of support services.”
Providing leniency for those impacted by isolation or quarantine as a result of COVID-19
For workers: The new rules allow current unemployment claimants who are in isolation or quarantine as a result of COVID-19 more leniency about many unemployment insurance deadlines and mandatory appointments. This includes deadlines for applying for training programs or mandatory re-employment service appointments.
For employers: The rules also waive financial penalties for employers who file their tax reports late, pay their taxes late, or do not respond information requests in a timely fashion as a result of COVID-19.
ESD has created a new COVID-19 information page on its website that provides an overview of programs. These include unemployment benefits for workers whose companies close or experience a slowdown due to the outbreak; layoff assistance for businesses; and Paid Family and Medical Leave benefits for workers who get sick or need to care for a sick family member. The web page will be updated with new information as it becomes available.
Leave and telework options for state employees
Inslee also announced additional options for state employees, including leave expansion and telework options.
In a letter to state employees today, Inslee laid out these additional options:
- Leave expansion: State employees impacted by COVID-19 will have additional leave available to them, which will means they won't be required to take existing sick, vacation or family leave.
- Guidance around staying home and self-isolating: If an employee has symptoms of fever and cough or shortness of breath, and has not experienced any known exposure to COVID-19 or tested positive for COVID-19, the employee is to stay home for 72 hours after their fever is gone and symptoms have improved.
- Telework: State organizations will explore all possible options to expand telework for employees impacted by COVID-19.
Inslee said 80 percent of people who contract COVID-19, the illness caused by novel coronavirus, will show only mild symptoms. The risk of serious illness or death is higher for people 60 or older and those with compromised immune systems. And the virus has proven to spread more rapidly in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
The governor also laid out new rules for nursing homes and assisted living facilities.