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Law360 (April 26, 2021, 7:36 PM EDT) -- The U.S. Department of Labor announced an initiative Monday to help workers deemed essential during the pandemic better understand their wage and hour rights, such as whether they're still entitled to overtime and minimum wage and can take leave.
The DOL's Wage and Hour Division said its Essential Workers, Essential Protections initiative would help workers navigate laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Family and Medical Leave Act by offering webinars, a revamped webpage about workers' rights and answers to frequently asked questions.
The effort is intended "to ensure that workers know about the wage and hour laws that protect them — and how to contact us to get help if they need it," WHD principal deputy Administrator Jessica Looman said in a DOL blog post Monday.
Workers in sectors such as grocery stores, public transportation, agriculture, health care, day care and the retail industry have continued to work in-person during the health emergency, and they should know their protections, Looman said.
"These are occupations where workers are more likely to be the victims of wage theft or to work in environments that put them at risk of exploitation," Looman said in the blog post. "That's why the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division is focused on ensuring that essential workers get paid every penny of the wages they have earned during the pandemic and as our nation continues to recover."
Besides helping workers know their rights, the project also seeks to help employers know their obligations, according to Looman.
A webpage for the initiative offers information on topics such as "Questions about your pay," "Questions about break time for nursing mothers" and "Questions about time off from work if you or a family member are sick."
The section on pay focuses on the FLSA and answers questions about whether an employer owes pay for hours cut due to COVID-19 and for time employees spend in temperature checks or coronavirus testing, for example.
The sick-leave section offers information about whether the FMLA covers taking leave to recover from COVID-19 or caring for a family member with the disease, or taking leave to avoid getting it.
The DOL previously offered answers to many of these questions online, but the new initiative appears to try to make the answers easier to access.
Besides the main Essential Workers, Essential Protections webpage, the revamped workers' rights webpage now includes sections specifically for farmworkers, young workers, restaurant workers and temporary workers in the H-2B program.
WHD's attempt to clarify protections comes as FLSA and FMLA litigation indicates that employers and employees still have confusion about requirements more than a year into the pandemic.
Employees have sued Victoria's Secret, Walmart and tennis retailer The Merchant of Tennis Inc. over pay for time spent in temperature screenings, a topic covered in the WHD guidance, for example.
"Workers deserve to know what hours they should be paid for and when they'll have job protection for their illness or the illness of a family member," Looman said in the blog post Monday. "And employers need guidance to ensure that they are doing right by these essential workers."
Mark Hanna of Murphy Anderson PLLC, a National Employment Lawyers Association board member, said the DOL guidance could help workers whom the COVID-19 economy has affected.
"Employers have cut hours and failed to pay essential workers," Hanna said in a statement to Law360 on Monday. "The administration's initiative provides clear guidance to employers and employees about rights and responsibilities. The next step for DOL is to follow their strong guidance with enforcement."
--Editing by Leah Bennett.
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