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COVID-19: Tennessee Employment Law

COVID-19 has produced shockwaves throughout the economy in Tennessee and the United States as a whole. Social distancing measures, “Safer at Home” orders, and government regulations caused many businesses to close their doors or revamp their operations, rendering employees unable to work. If you work in Tennessee, you may have questions about your employment status, what you may be entitled to by law, and concerns about safely returning to work.

Tennessee Unemployment Benefits During COVID-19

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Tennessee had an unemployment rate around 3.3%. On average, Tennessee saw around 2,500 new unemployment claims per week. COVID-19 has blown those figures out of the water. With non-essential businesses ordered to shut down, the unemployment rate in Tennessee has skyrocketed as workers have been terminated, placed on furlough, or seen their hours significantly reduced. As of April 23, 2020, a staggering 400,000 Tennesseans had filed for unemployment benefits.

Unemployment benefits are administered at the state level through the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. To qualify for unemployment in Tennessee, you must:

  • Be unemployed through no fault of your own (which can include being placed on furlough or having your hours significantly reduced by your employer);
  • Have earned “Qualifying Base Period Wages” of a minimum of $780.01 in each of 2 quarters of the Base Period (the first 4 of the last 5 completed calendar quarters prior to the quarter when your claim is filed);
  • Be able to work; and
  • Be available to work.

Certain standards and requirements have been relaxed in light of COVID-19. Temporary unemployment benefits can be obtained while your hours are reduced or if you have been placed on furlough status.

Due to high call volume, Tennessee recommends applying for unemployment benefits online. Once approved, you will need to Certify each week on their website and report wages earned, if any. Under Tennessee law, the maximum unemployment insurance (UI) payment in Tennessee is $275.00 per week, and your weekly payment will depend on the wages you earned prior to filing your claim.

Tennesseans receiving unemployment benefits can be entitled to additional benefits thanks to the federal government, which enacted the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was signed into law on March 27, 2020. Under the CARES Act, Tennesseans may be entitled to these benefits, in addition to traditional unemployment benefits under state law:

  • Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC): $600.00 added onto the weekly Tennessee unemployment insurance payment, in effect until July 31, 2020.
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA): up to 39 weeks of additional unemployment compensation to those who have traditionally been ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits (i.e. independent contractors, gig workers, self-employed).
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC): can provide an additional 13 weeks of benefits to those receiving unemployment.

Traditionally, most self-employed individuals and independent contractors, including gig workers like Uber drivers, were not able to receive UI benefits in Tennessee. Due to COVID-19, these individuals may now be eligible for PUA benefits.

For more information on Tennessee unemployment benefits and your eligibility, visit the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development FAQ page.

Sick Leave for Tennessee Employees During COVID-19

To protect American workers affected by COVID-19, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which allows many workers to receive paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. Currently, the Act is in effect until December 31, 2020.

Generally speaking, the Families First Act states that covered employees could be entitled to the following forms of sick leave:

  • Two weeks (2) of paid sick leave (at regular rate of pay) if the employee is unable to work because he/she is quarantined and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis;
  • Two (2) weeks of paid sick leave (at two-thirds pay) because the employee is unable to work due to a “bona fide” need to care for an individual subject to quarantine, or to care for a child whose school or childcare provider is closed due to COVID-19; or
  • Up to ten (10) weeks of expanded family and medical leave (at two-thirds pay) if the employee (who has been employed for at least 30 days) is unable to work (in person or remote) because he/she has a “bona fide” need to care for a child whose school or childcare provider is closed due to COVID-19.

The paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave provisions of the Families First Act apply to certain public employers and private companies with under 500 employees. In Tennessee, Governor Lee’s Executive Order 15 also states a claimant can receive unemployment benefits if he or she has been directed to quarantine or isolate by a medical professional or health authority.

An employee can qualify for sick leave under the Families First Act if he/she cannot work or telework due to the following COVID-19 related reasons:

  • Required to quarantine or isolate due to government Order;
  • Advised by a doctor or healthcare provider to self-quarantine;
  • Experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis;
  • Caring for an individual who required to quarantine; or
  • Caring for a child whose school or daycare is closed due to COVID-19.

In Tennessee, if your child’s school or daycare facility is closed for COVID-19, you could be eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits, as explained above.

Small and medium size businesses in Tennessee whose employees receive paid leave pursuant to the Families First Act can receive tax credits reimbursing them for the cost of providing paid sick leave and extended family leave wages to employees for reasons related to COVID-19.

Employee Harassment and Discrimination During COVID-19

Tennessee law states employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of age, race, sex, religion, disability, national origin, and creed. Federal laws also deal with employee discrimination in the workplace. Tennessee lawmakers have ruled it illegal to take discriminatory actions against employees in the form of benefits, discipline, compensation, termination, harassment, improperly forcing employees to take leave, promotions, suspensions, and training. Tennessee employers are subject to these rules during COVID-19, even if their physical offices are closed.