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Office of the Vermont Attorney General

COVID-19 Updates and Information from the Attorney General

COVID-19 Information & Resources

Click on any of the sections below for  COVID-19-related guidance and resources from the Vermont Attorney General’s Office:

Child Care Programs

The Vermont Department for Children and Familes – Child Development Division has developed a webpage and FAQ dedicated to providing information and resources about child care and COVID-19.

Debt Collectors, Creditors and Financial Institutions

Attorney General T.J. Donovan issued a directive to debt collectors, creditors, and financial institutions instructing them that, in Vermont, federal stimulus money is protected from garnishment or collection. Payments authorized by the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, are exempt from garnishment or collection under Vermont law. The Attorney General is also urging the banking community to voluntarily suspend collection activity for overdrafts or other administrative fees that could otherwise jeopardize the receipt, reallocation, and circulation of stimulus monies issued to Vermonters as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

The CARES Act was signed into law on March 27, 2020, and provides emergency assistance for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Under the Act, eligible individuals and families can receive a one-time cash payment from the U.S. Treasury Department based on means-tested eligibility criteria. These payments come in the form of a refundable tax credit, identified as a “recovery rebate” in the Act.

Vermont law exempts these monies from garnishment or collection under 12 V.S.A. § 2740(19)(I). That statute provides that “compensation for loss of future earnings” is exempt from garnishment or collection as a “property traceable to [an individual’s] right to receive, to the extent reasonably necessary for the support of [an individual]” and any dependents of the individual.

Vermonters who experience garnishment from a debt collector, creditor, or financial institution may file a complaint with the Vermont Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program.

A PDF of the Attorney General’s directive can be found here.

For Small Businesses

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an unsettling and challenging time for small businesses. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a page devoted to businesses here. Below are some additional topics to consider. This page will be regularly updated as new information is available. If you have specific questions not answered here, please contact our Consumer Assistance Program’s Small Business Initiative for help at 800-649-2424 or ago.cap@vermont.gov. We can provide information, assistance, or a referral.

Don’t be tempted to price gouge

Inflating the prices of essential goods and services during a market crisis is called “price gouging.” It is a violation of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act. Price gouging of petroleum products, such as heating fuel, is explicitly banned by statute when there is a market emergency. You can find the statute here.

Are you the victim of price gouging?

In Vermont, businesses are considered consumers in the eyes of the law. This means that a business that faces price gouging in its own purchasing with respect to items it uses (but does not re-sell) has protections under the Consumer Protection Act. For example, if you try to purchase essential supplies during the COVID-19 crisis, like bleach wipes or hand sanitizer, and the seller is inflating prices, you may have protections under the Consumer Protection Act. If you encounter price gouging by a supplier, please alert the Consumer Assistance Program at 800-649-2424 or ago.cap@vermont.gov.

Allowing employees time off

Vermont statute requires employers to provide earned sick leave to employees. Our plain language guide on Earned Sick Leave can be found here. The full statute can be found here.

Regardless of whether an employee has earned sick time, during this pandemic we recommend that employers permit employees time off when symptomatic.

Continuity planning

In the event that your business will need to temporarily close or if key personnel are absent due to COVID-19 concerns, you should have a continuity plan in place. This will ensure that your operations will continue as smoothly as possible. The Small Business Administration’s post on continuity planning is a good starting place. The nonprofit SCORE also offers a “Small Business Disaster Preparedness Resource.”

To protect your business from being a victim to a scam, it is important to establish internal processes to ensure payments are being sent to valid sources.  This may include placing a verification phone call to a number you trust of the requesting party and requiring three or more individuals to be involved in money transfer approvals. More information about COVID-19 scams can be found below.

Contracts best practices

During this pandemic, cancellation of events may be unpredictable. In business transactions, it is best to get expectations in a written agreement.

Limiting hoarding

It’s okay to limit how much of a product a customer can purchase if you disclose the limitation. We recommend a clear sign in large font posted close to the product.

COVID-19 scams

Unfortunately, in times of emergency we can expect an increase in scams. We urge businesses and employees to be on the look-out for imposter scams in which a scammer poses as a company’s CEO, manager, or other internal employee. The scammer convinces an employee to wire money. Scammers may also target remote workers by getting them to agree to pay fake invoices or solicitations in the guise of a bill. They may also convince the remote workers to respond to scam telemarketers “verifying” an address, but really signing businesses up for services.

Another potential scam to be on the look-out for is the government poster scam. Scammers call or fax, saying the federal government requires posters to be posted in a visible location at their business. Scammers may make up new requirements, declaring that the federal government has new requirements due the pandemic that must be followed and that businesses need to pay a fee to fulfill such requirement. There are free COVID-19 posters available on the CDC website currently.

In addition to these business-oriented scams, there are two COVID-19 scams to be careful of. The first is fake charity appeals that supposedly help people or communities impacted by the emergency. For more information on charities scams, see our CAP Connection blog post.

Another type of scam you might encounter are fake treatments or cures for COVID-19. If you are solicited by a scammer, please make a scam report with the Consumer Assistance Program at 800-649-2424 or ago.cap@vermont.gov.

Our help page for small businesses has additional resources for small businesses owners.

Heating Fuel, Propane and Other Utilities

1) Price gouging: Petroleum and Heating Fuel

Vermont has an anti-price gouging law related to heating fuel and petroleum products, 9 V.S.A. 2451d, which prohibits charging “unconscionably high” fuel prices during a “market emergency,” which first requires a declaration by the Governor.

This law applies to all petroleum and heating fuel products, such as gasoline, kerosene, oil, wood pellets, and propane also known as liquified petroleum gas.

As of March 19, 2020, the Governor has not declared a “market emergency”.  Should that change, this post will be updated.

Regardless, it is the Attorney General’s position that unconscionably high fuel pricing during the COVID-19 crisis would still constitute an unfair act under the Consumer Protection Act.

Consumers should file a complaint here if they see any price gouging on petroleum or heating fuel products. If you have questions, call or email the AG’s Consumer Assistance Program at 800-649-2424 or AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

2) Payments and Collections: Propane

Apart from price gouging, there are no other specific laws that would govern heating fuel or propane rights and obligations during the COVID-19 crisis.  Meaning, the same rights and obligations apply.  Propane dealers have a right to collect payments and consumers would be bound by any regular contract or customer relationship regarding payments.

Under current propane laws, fuel dealers must allow customers to enter into reasonable payment plans if customers cannot afford propane, regardless of the reason (whether the financial hardship stems from COVID-19 or any other financial hardship). See CP 111.10, available here. Propane dealers also must deliver on a cash-on-delivery basis, even if you have an outstanding balance.  See CP 111.06 for full terms on cash deliveries, available here.

Nonpayment of propane/heating fuel could result in termination of service, if fuel dealers follow the proper procedures for disconnection.  Read the full rule on service disconnections at CP 111.11, available here.

Tip: ask your propane dealer for a reasonable payment plan if you are experiencing financial hardship during the COVID-19 crisis.  Feel free to report any unfair or deceptive acts or practices to the Consumer Assistance Program.

3) Disconnections: Regulated Utilities (Electricity, Natural Gas, Telecommunications)

As of March 18, 2020, the VT Public Utility Commission has issued a moratorium on involuntary disconnections for natural gas, electricity, and telecommunications, for all residents of Vermont. The moratorium remains in effect until April 30, 2020 or until further notice.  Read the full order here.

*Note that the order does not suspend payment obligations:

  • “Nothing in this Order shall be interpreted as relieving customers of their obligation to pay what is due to their utilities. This Order only affects the utilities’ ability to disconnect residential customers for non-payment.”
Landlord-Tenant, Mortgages and Foreclosures

Landlord-tenant matters in Vermont are a contractual relationship between the parties and governed by the Residential Rental Agreement statute (9 V.S.A. §§ 4451, et seq.). We urge calm and communication as all parties do their best to navigate this public health emergency.

    • Vermonters with subsidized rent should immediately notify their public housing authority with any change in income, especially if due to job loss.
    • Community Action Agencies (CAAs) provide emergency assistance to Vermonters in need, including back rent assistance. Here is a list of the CAAs with contact information.
    • Courts have declared suspension of nonemergency proceedings through April 15. If you receive an eviction notice you should contact the Court immediately to find out if proceedings will be delayed.
    • The Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition has a page dedicated to updating the public on COVID-19 as it pertains to housing and homelessness.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has suspended all foreclosures and evictions for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured properties for 60-days (through April 15). The full mortgage letter can be found here.

If you are at risk of not being able to pay your mortgage due to hardships suffered in connection with the COVID-19 national emergency, there may be help available for you. The federal government has taken steps to offer assistance to homeowners whose mortgages are insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and to homeowners whose mortgages are owned by Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae. Additionally, certain banks are offering their own COVID relief programs to affected homeowners. Even if your bank does not offer a program specifically to address COVID-19-related hardships, most banks will consider requests for assistance from homeowners facing hardships on a case-by-case basis. To seek any of these types of assistance, you must first contact your mortgage servicer (the company that sends you bills for your mortgage) to let them know about the difficulties you are facing and to ask about the options that are available to you. If you have difficulties in communicating with your mortgage servicer about what assistance may be available to you, please contact the Consumer Assistance Program at AGO.CAP@vermont.gov or 1-800-649-2424.

Law Enforcement Guidance

The Attorney General’s Office issued a Directive to Law Enforcement on the Enforcement of COVID-19 Emergency Order.

The Attorney General’s directive instructs law enforcement who encounter noncompliant businesses or individuals to provide education and request voluntary compliance. If noncompliance continues, law enforcement will report those issues and the Attorney General’s Office will work with law enforcement to develop an appropriate response. The directive also clarifies the available penalties: A civil violation of up to $1,000 per violation per day and criminal violation of up to $500 fine and/or up to 6 months imprisonment.

A copy of the directive is available here.

Lodging Operations

Lodging Operations (Updated May 19, 2020)

Per Addendum 14 to the Governor’s Executive Order (EO) 01-20, dated May 15, 2020, the prior addendums concerning lodgivng (Addendums 6 and 7) have been modified to allow the limited resumption of lodging operations in Vermont, including hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, inns, short term rentals, such as those made available through VRBO, Homeaway, AirBnb and other services, parks for recreational vehicles and campgrounds, all public and private camping facilities including those managed by the Vermont Department of Parks and Recreation, and marinas.

According to the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD): effective May 22, lodging operators, including short-term rentals, may resume limited lodging operations with specific health and safety requirements, and occupancy/capacity limits, for the purpose of serving Vermont residents and non-residents who can verify they have met the 14-day quarantine requirement.

All reservations from out of state guests who cannot first meet the mandatory 14-day quarantine requirements must be cancelled through June 15, 2020. The State may require similar reservations to be cancelled beyond June 15th.

Guests must complete their self-quarantine in Vermont BEFORE arriving at a lodging property, accommodation or short-term rental. The lodging property, accommodation or short-term rental shall not be used by visitors from out-of-state as a location to complete their initial quarantine.

All operations must operate under the following restrictions:

  • Lodging operations, accommodations and short-term rentals may accept overnight reservations from Vermont residents, those who have met the minimum quarantine requirement, and essential employees allowed under the original Stay Home, Stay Safe order.Operators may require a copy of a Vermont drivers license or a signed document from the guest(s) attesting they meet the quarantine requirement.
  • Multi-room lodging operations and campgrounds may book a maximum of 25% (twenty-five percent)of rooms or sites for non-residential lodging (e.g. those who are not semi-permanent/seasonal residents — including housed AHS clients, essential workers, etc. — which are excluded from the calculation). Ensure separation to the greatest extent possible. Standalone cabins, cottages, and short-term rentals are excluded from this requirement.
  • All lodging and camping operations with more than 10 (ten) employees must complete and keep on file a reopening and training plan. VOSHA and the Agency of Commerce have provided a template at https://accd.vermont.gov/covid-19/business/restart
  • Check-in/out should be done via phone or electronic means to the greatest extent possible.
  • All guests must complete a health questionnaire, which could be completed via phone or electronic means such as email, upon check-in. Any guests that exhibit signs of illness or COVID-19 symptoms upon arrival may not be allowed to check in. If symptoms begin during their stay they must be asked to leave and return home if possible. If departure is not possible, guests must self-isolate for the remainder of their stay and the Vermont Department of Health must be contacted immediately.
  • A room or accommodation must thoroughly cleaned in accordance with CDC guidelines before another guest may use the accommodation.
  • Operators must ensure there are no gatherings of more than 10 people on the property.
  • Only one party should use an elevator at any given time.
  • Amenities may only be open if they are done so in accordance with the Executive Order and the Phased Restart Work Safe Guidance. Amenities must be cleaned and sanitized between guest usage and be managed to restrict access to 10 or fewer individuals, including employees, and maintain social distancing.
  • Food service may only be offered as take out or delivery or in compliance with current restaurant guidance.
  • Direct contact services (such as check-in, bell, valet, housekeeping, etc.) must be limited to the greatest extent possible. Cashless / touchless transactions are strongly preferred.
  • Operators must maintain an easily accessible log of customers and their contact information for 30 days in the event contact tracing is required by the Health Department.

Lodging operations may continue to provide lodging for the following purposes: housing for vulnerable populations (emergency shelter for homeless individuals) as arranged through the state; providing accommodations for health care workers, or other workers deemed necessary to support public health, public safety or critical infrastructure; use of lodging properties being used as quarantine facilities as arranged by the state; and limited verifiable extenuating circumstances for the care and safety of Vermonters. These guests do not count towards a lodging properties 25 percent maximum.

Below is an example of how a property would calculate its “25 percent maximum”:

100 room property
-20 rooms currently occupied by essential workers
-10 rooms currently occupied by AHS guests
=70 vacant rooms x .25 = 17 rooms (round down to the whole number)

NOTE: The Attorney General’s Lodging Directive, as updated April 10, 2020, has been superseded by Addendum 14 and the above information from ACCD. The Attorney General’s Lodging Directive is no longer active and should not be relied upon for any purpose.

Open Meeting Law and Physical Distancing

The Vermont Attorney General’s Office (“AGO”) has authority to enforce violations of the Vermont Open Meeting Law pursuant to 1 V.S.A. § 314.[1] Following the passage of H.681, rules that allow for safe social distancing will apply to open meetings for the duration of the governor’s COVID-19 emergency order (Executive Order 1-20).The following provides a guide for local governments to conduct open meetings while practicing physical distancing as recommended by experts in the medical community to address COVID-19:

  1. Electronic participation in public meetings is allowed. Vermont open meeting laws allow for members of public bodies to attend meetings by electronic means without being physically present at the meeting. 1 V.S.A. § 312(a)(2). A quorum or more can attend electronically and conduct business. 1 V.S.A. § 312(a)(2)(D).
  2. The public must be able to attend electronically. Any public body meeting remotely must provide the means for remote public access by electronic or telephonic means. H.682, Section 6(b). The public body shall allow attendance by telephone whenever possible. Id. The body must publicly post information on how to access meetings electronically and include that information on the agenda for the meeting. Id. Selectboards, city councils, and schoolboards must record meetings held electronically, unless it is impossible to do so. Id.
  3. Physical meeting places are not required during the COVID-19 emergency. For the duration of the COVID-19 emergency, no physical meeting location is required for any public body, and no member of the public body or staffer must be present at a designated location. H.682, Section 6(a)(2)-(3).
  4. Emergency Meetings are allowed: Given the rapidly changing nature of the situation, meetings may need to convene quickly. This is allowed when necessary to respond to unforeseen occurrences or conditions requiring immediate attention. Notice and posting requirements are waived for emergency meetings. 1 V.S.A. § 312(c)(3). Public notice should still be given as soon as possible before the meeting. Id.
  5. Additional guidance can be found:
    1. at the Secretary of State’s website
    2. at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns

[1] .  Private actors may also enforce rights on the Vermont Open Meeting Law.

Price Gouging

Price gouging is when the price of essential goods or services is inflated during a market crisis. Price gouging is illegal in Vermont under the Consumer Protection Act. Remember that in Vermont businesses are protected by the Consumer Protection Act when they are in the role of consumer, such as buying hand sanitizer or bleach wipes for use at their business – not for resale. To report price gouging, please contact our Consumer Assistance Program at AGO.CAP@vermont.gov or 1-800-649-2424 with the following information:

  • The date of the offer or purchase in question;
  • The store name & location (or website name & web-address, if offer/purchase was online);
  • As much identifying information about the product or service as you can provide, including, potentially, the product or services’ brand name; model name/number or product-line; volume (3-pack, 16 oz., etc.); and any other information that would assist in identifying the specific product/service in question;
  • The dollar amount of the offer or purchase in question;
  • Any supporting documentation showing the questionable price offer/purchase amount, including photographs of the product/price on the shelf and any receipts.
Scams

Economic Impact Payment, or “Stimulus Check,” Scam

The IRS has begun distributing economic impact payments, or “stimulus checks.” Most of these payments will be direct deposited into qualifying Vermonters’ bank accounts, but you should still be on the lookout for scams. Here are some tips from the Federal Trade Commission about how to keep scammers from cashing in on your payment:

COVID-19 Updates and Information from the Attorney General

• The check’s not in the mail – yet. Reports say that paper checks – for people without direct deposit – will start arriving in May at the earliest. So, if you get an economic impact payment, stimulus, or relief check before then, or you get a check when you’re expecting a direct deposit, it’s a scam.

• The IRS will not send you an overpayment and make you send the money back in cash, gift cards, or through a money transfer. If you get an official-looking check for more than what you were expecting, the next call you’re likely to get is from a scammer. They’ll tell you to keep the amount you are entitled to and to return the rest by sending cash, gift cards, or money transfers. It’s a scam that will leave you owing money to your bank.

• That’s not the IRS calling, texting, or emailing. Scammers are sending official-looking messages – including postcards with a password to be used online to “access” or “verify” your payment or direct deposit information. The IRS will not contact you to collect your personal information or bank account. It’s a scam.

Phony Healthcare Products

Beware of fake healthcare products that supposedly protect or cure you from COVID-19. There is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19 infection. The Vermont Department of Health’s COVID-19 page has reliable, up-to-date information about the virus, including common sense prevention tips.

A similar scam involves the sale of COVID-19 test kits. In this phishing scam, the scammer offers you employment selling COVID-19 test kits – if you provide your social security number to get set up. Never give your social security to an unknown person.

Fake Charities Scam

Beware of fake charity appeals that supposedly help people or communities impacted by the pandemic. You can verify charities by consulting the Vermont Secretary of State’s corporation database or by visiting Charity Navigator. For more information on charities scams, see our CAP Connection blog post on the topic.

Employer Imposter Scam

With many employees working remotely, beware of the imposter scams in which a scammer poses as a company’s CEO, manager, or other internal employee. The scammer convinces an employee to wire money. Scammers may also target remote workers by getting them to agree to pay fake invoices or solicitations in the guise of a bill. They may also convince the remote workers to respond to scam telemarketers “verifying” an address, but really signing businesses up for services.

Government Poster Scam

Another potential scam to be on the look-out for is the government poster scam. Scammers call or fax, saying the federal government requires posters to be posted in a visible location at their business. Scammers may make up new requirements, declaring that the federal government has new requirements due the pandemic that must be followed and that businesses need to pay a fee to fulfill such requirement. There are free COVID-19 posters available on the CDC website currently.

General Tips

Concerned Vermonters can report COVID-19-related scams, price gouging, or other consumer concerns to CAP. The following tips can protect you from scams:

  • Beware of unsolicited calls or emails
  • Don’t give out personal information
  • Be aware of scare tactics: Scammers demand immediate action or make threatening statements
  • Don’t talk to them: hang up!
  • Don’t open attachments: hit delete!
  • Always do your research and take steps to verify

To report a scam, price gouging, or other consumer concerns to our Consumer Assistance Program at AGO.CAP@vermont.gov or 1-800-649-2424.

Stay Home, Stay Safe Executive Order

On March 24, 2020, Governor Scott issued an executive order addendum, called ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ requiring Vermonters to remain at home except for essential reasons for personal and public health and safety.  Among other things, the Stay Home / Stay Safe order calls for most businesses to suspend in-person operations.

On April 17, 2020, the Governor issued an addendum to this order that allows a small range of  certain non-essential professions with virtually no direct customer contact — such as outdoor construction, realtors, or town clerks — to resume operations with “micro crews” of up to two people.  Such operations are subject health and safety standards (e.g., distancing, masks, hand cleaning) set by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) and the Vermont Department of Health.

Commercial entities, non-profits, employers and others with questions about acceptable continuation of business operations should review guidance issued by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD).  They may also seek additional information from ACCD via this online form.

Employees or members of the public with complaints or concerns regarding businesses that may not be operating in compliance with the Governor’s Executive Order may file a complaint at the Department of Public Safety’s Executive Order Reporting Tool.

Survivors of Domestic and Sexual Violence

While we continue to take precautions around COVID-19 to make our communities safer for everyone, it is important for Vermonters to remember that not every home situation is safe.

Self-isolation does not mean that you are alone. Advocates and law enforcement stand ready to help survivors of domestic and sexual violence despite this pandemic.

If you are worried about having to self-isolate in a dangerous home situation, please reach out when and how you feel safe. There are numerous resources available for survivors at the local and national level. They include:

The details around how domestic and sexual violence organizations are handling this situation are as follows:

    • Staff continue to answer hotline calls 24/7.
    • Shelters are open and implementing the procedural guidance offered by the State of Vermont Office on Economic Opportunity. This includes regular sanitation of shelter spaces, promoting hand washing and social isolation, and responding quickly in the event that a shelter resident feels ill.
    • Staff are attending to the needs of survivors housed in shelters by phone with daily in-person contact by one staff member.
    • The Vermont Network is working with service providers to ensure they have the most up-to-date information about staying safe and providing services, and to accurately represent what is happening locally in conversations at the state and national level.
Workplace Guidance for Employers and Employees

The Vermont Office of the Attorney General understands that both employers and employees alike have questions about how COVID-19 will affect their workforce and their workplace during these unprecedented times.

Vermont’s workforce is subject to state and federal laws regarding a broad range of employment issues, ranging from payment of wages, unemployment insurance, family leave, and job discrimination.  By law, various government agencies are granted authority to enforce one or more of these laws.

PDF of the guidance outlined below is available here.

 

Q: How does the new, “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order affect my job? 

It depends upon the type of job you have.  Over time, the rules have changed for different occupations.

On March 24, 2020, Governor Scott issued an executive order addendum, called ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ requiring Vermonters to remain at home except for essential reasons for personal and public health and safety.  Among other things, the Stay Home / Stay Safe order calls for most businesses to suspend in-person operations.  Thus, your employer may be changing the nature of your job by requiring you to telework or carry out customer transactions by curbside pickup or delivery.

Rule for Essential Employers.  The order exempts a number of employers that carry out vital health, safety, and infrastructure needs, including health care, groceries, pharmacies, hardware stores, media, and law enforcement.  For a full list set forth in the March 24 order, click here.    Exempted employers must still follow the hygiene and social distancing requirements issued by the Vermont Department of Health (VDH) and federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Beginning on April 17, 2020, the Governor has issued a series of addendums to this order aimed at slowly and safely re-opening the economy.  These addendums allow certain non-essential professions to begin working again, and lay out specific information regarding safety and health requirements for such employers, including maintaining social distancing, not reporting to work when sick, employee access to hand cleaning supplies, and wearing a mask at all times.

It is expected that the Governor will continue to periodically issue these types of addendums while monitoring current public health recommendations and standards.  For a full list of Governor Scott’s Executive Orders, click here.

The Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) and the VDH have provided guidance for those businesses and employers subject to the reopening at the Governor’s direction.

ACCD’s most recent guidance for businesses can be found here.

VDH’s guidance can be found here.

Commercial entities, non-profits, employers and others with questions about acceptable continuation of business operations should closely review and monitor the guidance issued by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD).  They may also seek additional information from ACCD via this online form.

 

Q. What Should I do if I think a business is not operating in accordance with Governor Scott’s Executive Order and phased restart requirements?

Employees or members of the public with complaints or concerns regarding businesses that may not be operating in compliance with the Governor’s Executive Order may file a complaint at the Department of Public Safety’s Executive Order Reporting Tool.

 

Q. If my employer is operating and I am required to report to a workplace, will I be required to wear any special protective gear?

There’s a good chance the answer is yes. The type of gear required depends on the kind of job you have.

Governor Scott’s April 17, 2020 addendum to the “Stay Home Stay Safe” executive order mandates specific health and safety requirements, consistent with Vermont Department of Health and CDC guidelines.  These include requiring all employees wear non-medical face masks over their nose and mouth when in the presence of others.  This order does not require that employees in non-medical industries wear medical grade masks, such as N95 masks.  The addendum also requires employees to maintain strict social distancing measures and have easy and frequent access to handwashing supplies.

This order does not require customers or patrons of businesses to wear facemasks, though it encourages members of the public to wear face masks when interacting with others outside of the home.

 

Q.  I need to close my business temporarily due to an order from the Governor or due to health and safety concerns.  Do I have to keep paying my employees?

 The recent COVID-19-related executive orders issued in Vermont do not change the wage and hour laws applicable to Vermont employers.  Suspending operation for COVID-19-related reasons generally would be treated the same way as any other temporary suspension or reduction in operations, such as seasonal changes in demand, inclement weather, remodeling, or relocation.  Out-of-work employees may be able to access any paid time off available to them, including benefits under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)(more details below) or Vermont’s earned sick time law, enforced by the VTDOL.  VTDOL also enforces Vermont’s wage and hour laws and should be the primary point of contact for questions regarding paying employees.

VTDOL’s Wage & Hour Program can be reached at:

Wage and Hour Program
63 Pearl Street
Burlington, VT 05401-4331
Telephone: 802-951-4083
FAX: 802-863-7655
Labor.WageHour@vermont.gov

VTDOL has also set up a resource page for information about pay for employees during the pandemic.  That page can be accessed here.

Many employees not able to work or laid off due to the COVID-19 outbreak may be eligible for unemployment benefits.  As of March 14, 2020, Governor Scott has mandated certain temporary changes to unemployment insurance eligibility requirements related to COVID-19.  A memorandum regarding those changes can be found here.

The U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL), which enforces federal wage and hour laws, has provided additional resources for employers related to COVID-19 here.

 

Q. One of my employees has notified me that they traveled to Europe last week.  They reported that they do not currently have any COVID-19 symptoms and would like to return to work in order to continue to earn money.  Can I prevent them from returning to the workplace?

The answer to this question has three parts.

First, you need to be sure that your workplace can remain open.  The Governor’s March 24, 2020 Stay Home, Stay Safe executive order requires many businesses to avoid operations that involve personal contact.  Thus, check first to see how that order affects the type of business you operate.  It could be that none or few of your employees may be permitted to return or remain at work.

Second, if your workplace can remain open, then yes, you may prevent an employee newly-returning from Europe from returning to the workplace — consistent with public health guidelines.

In its recently-updated guidance related to pandemics, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has explained that employers may follow Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines regarding post-travel quarantine without violating disability laws, and are not required to wait until an employee displays symptoms to require them to stay home.

Third, you should notify your employee that they should comply with the advice from the Vermont Department of Health (VTDOH) and the CDC travel guidelines requiring travelers returning to the U.S. from numerous countries abroad to self-isolate for 14 days and to self-monitor for symptoms, even if asymptomatic.  In addition, VTDOH advises travelers returning from passenger cruises and a broad range of countries, including Canada, South America, Europe, Australia, United Kingdom, Ireland, China, Iran, or South Korea to call it at 802-863-7240.  Further VTDOH guidance may be found here.

Employers and employees alike should review VTDOH and CDC updates and guidance daily, as the list of affected countries and other guidance is updated frequently.

 

Q. What if an employee is unable to work their normal schedule due to having to attend to childcare obligations while schools are closed?  What are my rights as an employee and obligations as an employer concerning a flexible work arrangement and paid or unpaid leave time?

Remote work is encouraged, where appropriate.  Vermont’s flexible work arrangements law requires all Vermont employers to discuss and consider in good faith requested flexible work arrangements with their employees.

On March 18, 2020, President Trump signed the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” (FFCRA) (H.R. 6201), requiring certain employers to provide leave, at times paid, for absences from work related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Act:

  1. expands the existing federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to allow employees to care for their children if school is closed due to a public health emergency; and
  2. provides certain paid sick leave for employees who are quarantined, have been advised by a healthcare provider to stay home due to concerns related to COVID-19, are seeking a medical diagnosis related to COVID-10, or are caring for an individual with COVID-19-related medical needs.

The Act went into effect on April 2, 2020.  Additional guidance from the USDOL is now available, including guidance regarding exemptions for small businesses.  Questions regarding this new law should be directed to the USDOL.

Separate and apart from any new rights under the FFCRA, if an employee cannot perform any work remotely either on a part-time or full-time basis, whether the employer is obligated to pay the employee depends upon a variety of factors, such as whether the employee is paid hourly or on a salaried basis, or whether the terms of such leave are governed by contract or workplace policies.  The USDOL has provided guidance on some of these factors as they relate to COVID-19 here.

Generally, hourly employees (e.g., those subject to overtime laws) are paid only for hours of work performed.  As for salaried employees exempt from the overtime laws, USDOL advises that they “generally must receive their full salary in any week in which they perform any work, subject to certain very limited exceptions.”  (The USDOL discusses those exceptions in its COVID-19 guidance here.)

In addition, employees may also have access to paid leave benefits (vacation, personal, or compensatory time), depending on the benefits provided by their employer, as well as benefits governed by Vermont’s earned sick time law.  Employees may also have up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave available for self-care or care for a family member under Vermont’s Parental and Family Leave (VPFLA), as well as an additional 24 hours of time under VPFLA’s short-term leave law for handling school-related needs and doctor’s appointments.

The CDC recommends that employers “ensure that [their] sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.”

 

Q.  I have a low-grade fever, but my primary care physician is unable to get me tested for COVID-19 at this time.  Must I continue to attend work?

The answer to this question has two parts.

First, you should make sure your employer is authorized to continue in-person operations or required to operate remotely.  The Governor’s March 24, 2020 Stay Home / Stay Safe executive order requires your employer to suspend all in-person operations.  Your employer should know this information, but you can check for yourself here.

Second, if your employer is authorized to maintain in-person business operations, you should stay home — consistent with current public health guidelines.  The current VTDOH and CDC recommendation is that employees displaying symptoms of COVID-19 (including fever, dry cough, or shortness of breath) should stay home even absent a diagnosis.  As above, these employees may have access to various paid leave benefits.

The EEOC has stated that employers may require employees displaying symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home until a doctor has cleared them to return to work and the employee has provided a note from a health care provider.

The EEOC has also published an extensive online guidance, “Coronavirus and COVID-19,” for employers and workers that includes fact sheets and a 40-minute video addressing common workplace questions.

 

Q. I tested positive for coronavirus and have to remain home under doctor’s orders.  My employer has let me know they don’t believe they can continue to employ me due to health and safety concerns.  Is this legal?

It may not be legal, depending upon the circumstances of your employment.  For example, employees being treated for serious health conditions such as COVID-19 may be entitled to job-protected leave under federal or state leave laws, such as Vermont’s Parental and Family Leave Act (VPFLA).  That law provides employees with a serious health condition up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave each year.  Such leave may also be used to care for a seriously ill family member.

In addition, discharging an employee known or believed to have (or have recovered from) COVID-19 may constitute a form of disability discrimination.  Again, the answer depends upon the individual circumstances of your employment.

That said, the EEOC has observed a recent guidance, “What You Should Know About the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and COVID-19” that federal disability protections laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) do allow employers (1) to prevent workers from returning to the workplace while they are sick and (2) to require them to provide a return to work certification from their physician prior to returning to the workplace.[1]

Contact the Attorney General’s Office Civil Rights Unit or the Human Rights Commission for additional information.

 

Q.  I know that the ADA has strict rules about medical questions and exams.  But given the circumstances, may I ask our employees in the workplace whether they have COVID-19 symptoms?  Also, can take their temperature to check for signs of fever?

Under the current state of the pandemic, the answer is yes, according to the EEOC, which enforces the ADA.  In its COVID -19 guidance, the EEOC observed:

“During a pandemic, ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the pandemic virus.  For COVID-19, these include symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat.”

The EEOC has also stated that employers may check employees’ temperature due to the current state of pandemic and community spread of COVID-19.  However, “employers should be aware that some people with COVID-19 do not have a fever.”

However, the EEOC also warned, “employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.”  Keep in mind checking employees’ temperatures is considered a medical examination, and information gathered from these checks must be treated as medical information.

 

Q: I have been experiencing harassment at work, either from customers, co-workers or my managers and supervisors because of a fear that I have the coronavirus.  What can I do?

Employees have the right to a workplace that is free from discrimination and your employer has an obligation to ensure that you are not harassed at work even when that harassment may be based on fear.  If you believe you have been subjected to workplace harassment on the basis of race, national origin or disability, etc. you may file a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office or the Human Rights Commission.

The CRU (or HRC if you are a state employee) can provide further information once they learn the details of your situation.

 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES  

Disclaimer

The information presented in this document is not legal advice.  This information is presented for general information purposes only.  If you have a specific legal question you should contact an attorney.  The information presented is provided in good faith as a public service.

We believe the information to be accurate.  However, laws and information change from time to time and are subject to interpretation.  Accordingly, we make no representation or warranty as to the completeness or accuracy of the information presented.  You should make your own determination as to its suitability for your purpose prior to use.  Additionally, policy makers may implement even more changes to federal and state laws affecting employers and employees as a direct result of the current public health crisis in an effort to respond quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic.  You should refer to the Vermont Department of Labor for future updates if and when they occur.

The Vermont Attorney General’s Office is not responsible for damages of any nature resulting from the use of or reliance upon the information provided.  We are not responsible for the contents of any websites referenced.  We provide these links as an information service only.  We make no warranty, express or implied, including the warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose.  We do not assume legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information.

[1] Employers may be subject to different rules from other sources, such as union contracts, personnel policies, or individual contracts.  Although the CRU and HRC cannot give individual legal advice, they can help you identify what rules may apply to your own situation.

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