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Law in the time of coronavirus – Article by Chris Meier

April 3, 2020

THE CONWAY DAILY SUN, Friday, April 3, 2020

As all of the Mount Washington Valley and the world alter our lives to the temporary social distancing and quarantine rules brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, so, too, must we adapt as business owners, employers and employees to a new (temporary) economic and legal reality. Below is an outline of some of the changes that I felt were important for us here in the valley to consider and keep in mind.

Governor’s Stay at Home Order Effective March 27 at midnight, and through May 4, the governor has ordered all “non-essential” businesses to close, schools to remain closed and remote learning, and state beaches to close. The list of what businesses are essential can be found on nh.gov, but note that grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations will remain open, as will restaurants but only for takeout or delivery. The order also allows for residents to leave home for fresh air and exercise, as long as social distancing and “staying-local-to-your-area” protocols are observed.

Federal CARES Act (Coronavirus Stimulus Act) — This bill is enormous, and 880 pages. Here are some highlights:

   Direct Payments — Up to a certain level of income, citizens will receive cash payments up to $1,200 based upon their 2019 tax filing. These likely will issue within three weeks and will either be deposited in an account on file with the IRS or a check will be sent. The Washington Post has created an easy calculator to estimate any payment you might receive.

   Unemployment Insurance Support — Under the Act, the current N.H. maximum for unemployment benefits will increase from a weekly benefit  of $427 to $1,027, and laid-off employees are entitled to an additional 13 weeks of benefits (changed from 26 weeks to 39 weeks). The benefit is dependent on your recent income amount, but if you are laid off from your employment, you should file for unemployment as early as you can. NHES will work with you through the process, but note that there are particular days and times to file based upon the first letter of your last name. For more information, check the website: nhes.nh.gov.

    Paycheck Protection Program — For employers considering keeping staff on payroll, this is potentially the biggest benefit in the CARES Act. The PPP provides to small businesses (up to 500 employees), non-profits, sole proprietors and independent contractors a loan of up to 2.5 times your monthly payroll (up to $10 million). While a loan, the PPP allows that the loans WILL BE FORGIVEN in the amount used for up of eight weeks of payroll, mortgage interest, rent and/or utility payments. There are reductions to the forgiveness amount if you lay off some workers or reduce any employee’s pay by more than 25 percent’ however, given the inclusiveness of the forgiveness, it is likely most loans will receive substantial forgiveness. The PPP will be run through the current SBA 7(a) loan program, so generally any bank or law firm that handles SBA loans (we have some in our community) can start you on this process once the SBA finishes the regulations to administer the program (they have until April 11). I recommend any and every business in this valley investigate whether this program can be of assistance keeping your employees on the books, as it is a substantial benefit that you likely do not have to pay back.

Families First Act
— There are three substantial parts of Families First: Emergency Sick Leave — This provision says that employers are required to provide 80 hours of emergency sick leave (related to coronavirus) in addition to existing sick leave or paid time off. This emergency leave goes away on Dec. 31 (or if an employee is laid off or terminated). Emergency Family Leave — The Leave provision provides for up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave for employees whose child care (or school) is unavailable due to coronavirus restrictions. The first 10 days can be unpaid; however, for the remainder, an employee must receive a benefit t of two-thirds their normal rate of pay (up to $200 per day or $10,000 total).

Payroll Tax Credit
— There will be an employer credit against payroll taxes for emergency sick leave or emergency family leave used by its employees.

Temporary prohibition of foreclosure
and eviction — All eviction and foreclosure actions in the state are suspended until further notice. Note that this order does not waive or forgive any rent or mortgage (or other) payment; it only delays any foreclosure or eviction proceeding.

Court proceedings
— Generally, courts are open only on a restricted basis, and closed to the public. Emergency matters are still being heard, and anyone with an emergency can contact the Trial Court Info Center at (888) 212-1234. A New Hampshire lawyer can also help you navigate how to obtain legal relief during this time. 

Note that this is a brief summary of the new law, and everyone should investigate further how these changes apply to them individually, with their own lawyer, accountant, bank, and HR advisor. I look forward to seeing you all in the restaurants, in the stores, and on the trails, rivers, and mountains of the MWV when all this is over, but until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and stay informed — we will get through this together. 

Chris Meier is an attorney specializing in business affairs at Cooper Cargill Chant, a North Conway law firm.