By Payne Horning
If 2020 was the year of the pandemic, one can only hope that 2021 will be remembered as the year it ended. The distribution of vaccines is taking center stage, but there are other important health-related developments on the horizon in New York. Several new noteworthy laws impacting New Yorke’s healthcare take effect this year.
Paid Sick Leave
Perhaps the most significant change this year is the enactment of the state’s new sick leave program.
Employees are now entitled to at least 40 hours of paid time off each year to tend to their own illness or to care for a sick family member.
It’s the latest expansion in the state’s paid leave campaign since 2018 when employees were given paid leave to bond with a new child, care for a loved one with a serious health condition or to help relieve family pressures when someone is called to active military service.
This new mandate affects almost every business — even small businesses with fewer than five employees have to provide paid sick leave for their employees so long as the company has a net income of $1 million or more; those with less revenue must offer 40 hours a year of unpaid leave. Companies with 100 or more employees must provide 56 hours of paid leave annually.
Under the new system, the paid leave benefit is earned. Employees are guaranteed a minimum of one hour off for every 30 hours worked, retroactive to Sept. 30, 2020. Alternatively, business owners can offer their staff the paid leave hours for the year up front rather than an earn-as-you-work system. However, if the employee does not later work the requisite number of hours to have earned that time they already took, it is not subject to reduction or revocation.
The paid leave program arrives at an important time. The state has started inoculating the public, but is wrestling with high transmission rates of the coronavirus. Director of the Labor and Employment Law Program Esta Bigler said the new law could be a major asset in that fight.
“This is really a very important step forward in fighting COVID,” Bigler said. “If someone is sick and they feel that they cannot stay home because they will lose their job because they don’t have any job protections if they stay home and if they don’t receive pay for staying home, then they won’t. I live in New York City and that means they will be riding the New York City subway and spreading whatever they have, whether it’s COVID or the flu. So, it really provides protections for workers, for employers because employers certainly don’t want their workforces to get sick, and for the public.”
The New York State Legislature did pass a paid leave program in response to the pandemic last year, but it had limited applicability.
The COVID-19 paid leave program mandated paid sick time and related job protection for the state’s residents so long as they or their minor dependent child are subject to a mandatory or precautionary order of quarantine or isolation issued by the state of New York, the Department of Health, local board of health, or any government entity duly authorized to issue such order due to COVID-19. That means it missed some people who were symptomatic but hadn’t yet been tested or ordered to stay at home.
“There are people who don’t feel well, but they don’t know they have COVID-19,” Bigler said. “So, it didn’t really cover a wide variety of possibilities, a wide range of things that we now know are COVID-19. Paid sick leave is very important even if we weren’t in a pandemic, but it certainly makes it even more important now.”
Another important provision of the new paid sick leave law is that it applies to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking. If someone or their family member has been affected by one of these offenses, they can take paid time off to address safety needs. For example, absences from work may be used, among other reasons, to obtain services from a domestic violence shelter, to meet with an attorney about a related lawsuit, or for time to relocate.
COVID-19 Treatment Covered
New Yorkers cannot be denied coverage by insurance companies for COVID-19 treatment. Inpatient and emergency services related to the disease must be covered regardless of whether the insurance company later claims that the treatment was not medically necessary.
Amid surging costs for insulin, New York state has capped how much insurers can charge for this crucial medicine. A new law limits cost sharing for insulin to $100 per 30-day supply for those with state-regulated commercial insurance. It’s a response to the many people with diabetes who have struggled to pay these bills in recent years, some of whom have resorted to rationing or even skipping doses.
“One of the most urgent issues faced by those living with diabetes today is the cost of insulin, which has skyrocketed in price, tripling in price between 2002 and 2013,” said physician LaShawn McIver, senior vice president of government affairs and advocacy for the American Diabetes Association. “With more than one in ten New Yorkers living with diagnosed diabetes, and nearly 130,000 more diagnosed every year, it is critical that elected officials address the needs of their citizens with diabetes.”
At least six other states have also capped these costs. New York’s cap on insulin applies as insurance plans are renewed or issued after January 1.