WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has substantially scaled back paid leave requirements for employers that were created by a new coronavirus relief law, effectively exempting many small businesses in a move that infuriated lawmakers who had fought to expand the benefit.
In guidance issued on Wednesday, the Labor Department said that employers at companies with fewer than 50 workers had broad latitude to decline to offer the 12 weeks of paid leave that the law required for workers whose children were home from school or for child care because of the coronavirus pandemic. The legislation, which provides two weeks of paid sick leave and 12 weeks of paid family leave, and reimburses employers for it with tax credits, already excludes workers at companies with more than 500 employees.
In all, more than 75 percent of American workers are at companies that qualify for exemptions from the law.
Enacted in March, the law said that businesses with fewer than 50 employees could be exempted from providing the leave if it would prevent the business from functioning, leaving it to the Department of Labor to specify what that meant. The department on Wednesday issued its guidelines, giving an expansive definition that allowed small businesses significant leeway not to provide the leave. Under the guidelines, small businesses cannot be exempted from providing sick leave for an employee’s own illness.
But companies with fewer than 50 employees could decline to provide paid leave for child care if doing so would “cause the small business to cease operating,” if workers’ absences would pose “a substantial risk” to the company, or if there were not enough workers “able, willing and qualified” to fill in for the person seeking leave.
Health care providers and first responders, as well as certain federal government employees, can also be denied the paid leave.
Democrats also raised alarm that the new guidelines added requirements that were not in the original law, including that employers could ask employees for certification of the need to take leave, and that employers needed to have work for the employee to do in order for workers to qualify for leave.
Senator Patty Murray of Washington and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, both Democrats who pressed for the paid leave expansion, on Wednesday urged Eugene Scalia, the labor secretary, to rescind some guidelines. In a letter, they wrote to Mr. Scalia that the guidelines “violate congressional intent” and “contradict the plain language” of the legislation.
“Given that congressional intent was to respond to the unprecedented nature of this pandemic,” the lawmakers wrote, the Labor Department had “the responsibility to provide the maximum flexibility for workers during this crisis — not restricting their leave to when employers grant their consent.”
Mr. Scalia said in a statement on Wednesday that the law provided “unprecedented paid leave benefits to American workers affected by the virus, while ensuring that businesses are reimbursed.”
The Labor Department guidelines are likely to become part of a broader set of disputes between Congress and the Trump administration over the execution of more than $2 trillion worth of new programs created to respond to the coronavirus crisis, hastily laid out in three sweeping laws enacted over the past month.
The expansion of paid leave provisions was among the most contentious issues as lawmakers and administration officials negotiated legislation last month intended to bolster the social safety net and help families struggling from the reach of the virus. Substantial changes made to the legislation after it passed the House in a post-midnight vote curtailed the scope of the benefits, in part because of the administration’s concerns about burdening small businesses.
The legislation ultimately passed the Senate and was signed into law last month, with Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, counseling Republicans “to gag and vote for it anyway.”
Democrats have vowed to continue pushing to expand the paid leave provisions in future legislation to prop up an economy that has largely been forced to shutter to slow the spread of the virus. But Republicans have remained reluctant to sign on to such provisions, and Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee hailed the “greater flexibility” now given to small businesses in a news release on Thursday.
Liberal economists who backed the paid leave program warned that the restrictions would force many workers to make a difficult decision — between caring for their children and keeping their jobs — at a time when fear and uncertainty are running high.
They also raised concerns about the broad exemptions to the program that the Labor Department carved out for health care workers.
“Exempting health care providers and emergency responders threatens our nation’s ability to fight back against the coronavirus and makes us all more vulnerable,” said Heather Boushey, the president of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a think tank focused on inequality and growth. “Our health care workers are the most susceptible to exposure and are in a position to pass it on to other patients. These are the workers who most need to be protected.”