If I gave you a million tries, you’d never guess that the next Department of Labor FMLA opinion letter would answer the question [wait for it . . .]: Is an employee’s attendance at a child’s IEP meeting covered by the FMLA?

The Answer? Yes. Most definitely, yes.

In an opinion letter issued yesterday, the DOL concluded that the FMLA covers an employee’s attendance at a school meeting where their child’s individualized education program (IEP) will be discussed.

The Facts

Interestingly, the request for an opinion letter came from a set of parents whose two children have serious health conditions.  The employer for one of the parents approved intermittent FMLA leave to transport their children to and from medical appointments, but refused a request to take intermittent FMLA leave to attend school meetings.

As background, their children currently receive “pediatrician-prescribed occupational, speech, and physical therapy provided by their school district.”  Additionally, on four occasions throughout the school year, their school holds IEP meetings to “review their educational and medical needs, well-being, and progress.”  These IEP meetings include participation by a speech pathologist, school psychologist, occupational therapist and/or physical therapist employed or contracted by the school district, all of whom provide services to the child under the child’s IEP.  The child’s teachers and school administrators also attend. [In case you’re wondering, an IEP outlines the program of special education instruction, support and services a child with a disability will receive as part of their education program. Each program is designed to meet a child’s exact needs.]

When one of the parents was denied FMLA leave to attend these IEP meetings, the parents together took the law into their own hands — and drafted a request for an opinion letter from the DOL regarding the issue.

DOL Opinion

Based on these facts, the DOL determined that the employee’s attendance at the IEP meetings constitutes “care for a family member … with a serious health condition.” Here’s the DOL’s rationale:

Care for a family member includes both physical and psychological care.  As noted above, “to care for” a family member with a serious health condition
includes “to make arrangements for changes in care.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.124(b)

In finding that IEP meetings are covered by the FMLA, the DOL leaned heavily on: 1) a 2012 federal court case, Wegelin v. Reading Hosp. & Med. Ctr., and 2) an FMLA opinion letter the agency issued in 1998, to support its conclusion.

  1.  The Wegelin case: The DOL cited a few cases in support of its opinion, but only the Wegelin case seems to me to be somewhat analygous to an IEP situation. Here, the plaintiff was an employee whose child had autism and required around-the-clock care. During the workday, plaintiff placed her child in daycare. Due to factors beyond her control, she was forced to change childcare providers and took time off work to meet with potential daycare providers who would care for her child during the day. The court found that “arrangements for changes in care” (as stated in the FMLA regulations) made clear that her meetings with child care providers were covered:

Making arrangements for “changes in care” is expressly covered by the regulations. Significantly, the regulations are silent on whether the facility needs to be one that provides medical treatment. The fact that Carolyn’s daycare is not a specialized facility is not dispositive. What is relevant is that Carolyn has a chronic serious health condition resulting in an inability to perform regular daily activities and Wegelin had to make arrangements to find a suitable daycare that could care for her. Bowmansville daycare center was suitable, but no longer available . . . she had to make arrangements for a change in Carolyn’s care, entitling Wegelin to FMLA leave.

2. 1998 FMLA Opinion Letter: Although short on factual detail, this rather dated 1998  opinion letter (FMLA-94) found that FMLA applied where an employee requested to take time off to attend “Care Conferences” related to her mother’s health condition because her attendance at these conferences was “clearly essential to the employee’s ability to provide appropriate physical or psychological care” to her mother.

Similarly, the DOL was persuaded that the parent attends IEP meetings to help make medical decisions concerning their children’s medically-prescribed speech, physical, and occupational therapy; to discuss their children’s well-being and progress with the providers of such services; and to ensure that the school environment is suitable to their medical, social, and academic needs.

Insights for Employers

This opinion letter requires employers to properly handle IEP meeting requests as leave requests likely covered by the FMLA.  Keep in mind the following:

  1. Employers should treat a request for FMLA leave to attend an IEP meeting consistent with how they handle all other intermittent FMLA leave requests. That said, the employee is required to provide notice for a foreseeable leave of absence and provide appropriate certification to support the leave request.  In most instances, this should not be a last-minute leave request.
  2. At times, it can be tough to determine whether this is an actual IEP meeting, or if it’s just a regular school visit. For instance, disciplinary meetings at the school would not fall under the guidance provided in this opinion letter. As such, employers should closely review the need for attendance specifically at school meetings so that there is some connection to the child’s IEP or issues that implicate the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
  3. That said, what 504 Plan meetings? If IEPs are covered, are 504 Plans covered, too?  Me thinks the DOL may have simply overlooked this issue. At a minimum, they decided to take a very narrow view of school meetings. Clearly, there are similarities and overlap in IEPs and 504 Plans, as they both provide accommodations in the learning environment for those with disabilities.  Take a look at the analysis from my friends Jon Hyman and Suzanne Lucas on this issue.
  4. Can the employer require proof of appointment for IEP meetings?  At a minimum, employers should insist that the medical certification contain specific language supporting the need for the employee to attend IEP meetings for the child. The leave request otherwise should be handled similar to an employee who requires doctor’s appointments.  Unless there is objective evidence that the employee is lying about attendance at the IEP meetings, employers should tread carefully in requesting documentation to support attendance at every IEP meeting.
  5. Train your managers about this new obligation so that these requests are not being outright rejected in the context of FMLA leave.  I mean, really. The manager’s knee jerk reaction to this request likely will be that such meetings are not covered by FMLA. They need to understand how this updated guidance affects these particular leave requests.

It’s a Friday in the middle of summer. So, approximately half of your workforce called off today due to an FMLA-related absence. [Well, not really, but I’m not that far off, amirite?]

Take heart. At least you’re not the City of Chicago.

As reported this week by the City’s Inspector General, three employees in the City’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications all took FMLA leave at the same time for various so-called ailments. Instead of laying up on the couch and recuperating, however, the employees took the first plane they could out of Chicago and headed down to the Caribbean for a “booze” cruise and other similar activities, according to the Inspector General’s report, which highlighted their fun in the sun:

The [employees] consumed alcohol, went to numerous restaurants, attended night clubs, toured Caribbean islands, went horseback riding, rode jet skis, and even went on a ‘booze cruise.’

In a move that would make even the most egregious FMLA abuser blush, two of the employees took a combined 10 cruises over a seven year period, using FMLA leave on these occasions to avoid work.

That’s not all.

A fourth employee used 19 days of FMLA leave to take two Caribbean cruises in 2014 and 2017.  During these cruises, he consumed alcohol, toured the islands, shopped and went clubbing at night.  When questioned about his boondoggle, the employee stated simply that he took FMLA leave “just to get away.”

Many of these FMLA days were paid by the City, all on the taxpayer’s dime. However, the employees apparently did not schedule their paid time off in advance, so that they could more easily slip away unnoticed.

When the pattern of their activities was snuffed out, they were terminated for their outrageous FMLA abuse. But not until the damage had already been done.

Insights for Employers

Stay vigilant, my friends. How can employers minimize the chances of getting stung by this same tactic? I’ve shared some of these ideas before, but here are a number of tools that have worked for my clients as they have fought FMLA leave abuse, especially in the dead of summer:

  1. Prepare a list of probative questions you ask all employees when they request time off. Employers, you have the right to know why your employee can’t come to work! So, prepare a list of questions that you ask your employees when they call in an absence. These will help you better determine whether FMLA is in play and if the request might be fraudulent:

– What is the reason for the absence?

– What essential functions of the job can they not perform?

– Will the employee see a health care provider for the injury/illness?

– Have they previously taken leave for this condition? If so, when?

– [If they are calling in late in violation of the call-in policy], when did the employee first learn he/she would need to be absent? Why did they not follow the Company’s call-in policy?

– When do they expect to return to work?

2.  Enforce call-in procedures. Every employer should maintain a call-in policy that, at a minimum, specifies when the employee should report any absence (e.g., “one hour before your shift”), to whom they should report the absence, and what the content of the call off should be.  If you don’t have call-in procedures set up in an employee handbook or personnel policy that is distributed to employees, begin working now with your employment counsel to put these procedures in place. They will help you better administer FMLA leave, combat FMLA abuse and help you address staffing issues at the earliest time possible.

As I referenced in a recent blog post, you should consider aligning your FMLA call-in policies with your regular PTO policies.

3.  Certify … and Recertify! Clearly, one of the best tools employers can use to fight FMLA abuse is the medical certification form. Unfortunately, all too many employers fail to obtain (or fail to do so in a timely manner) from the employee the medical information necessary to determine whether the employee suffers from a serious health condition and even is entitled to leave.  Keep your employees honest — require them to certify their absence and seek recertification at the earliest opportunity.   Require medical certification to initially verify the serious health condition, upon the first absence in a new FMLA year, and when the reason for leave changes.

4.  Use the “Cure” Process to your Advantage When Following Up on Certification.  Where the medical certification form does not sufficiently answer the questions posed on the form or the health care provider’s responses tend to raise doubts, employers should immediately communicate with the employee to cure the deficiencies and/or shed light on any suspect information provided in the form.  In your correspondence, specifically list the unanswered or incomplete questions and provide the employee with a deadline of at least seven calendar days to fix the deficiencies.  Here, you might consider asking questions that probe further into the information you find particularly suspect. Also, seek clarification whenever the employee has failed to cure and the certification remains incomplete or insufficient.  Additionally, consider using a physician or a nurse to contact the employee’s health care provider on the employer’s behalf (but remember: you must have the employee’s permission to contact the employee’s health care provider).

5. Discuss with the Employee Your Expectations During Leave. When you first approve leave — particularly intermittent leave — take the time to discuss with your employee your expectations for taking FMLA leave. Ensure that your employee understands the call-in requirements (i.e., where to call into and what basic information you expect that the employee will provide about their need for leave), certification obligations, any check-in obligations, and your expectations for proper use of FMLA leave. These expectations should be summarized in a document that you provide your employee, who should sign off on it. This document will be helpful down the road if you need to defend your actions, as it will establish that the employee was well aware of your expectations in taking FMLA leave.

6.  Have Employee Complete a Personal Certification. This could have come in handy for the City of Chicago. Upon return from any leave of absence (FMLA or otherwise), ask the employee to complete a personal certification asking them to confirm that they actually took leave for the reason provided.  The benefit of using this kind of form is fairly straightforward: In the event that the employee takes leave inconsistent with the stated reason, the employer can discipline him/her for falsification of employment records. In doing so, you avoid having to make the argument that they abused FMLA leave, which comes with some tricky legal analysis. Here, you simply argue that the employee falsified a record and you took action as you would in any other situation where an employee falsified a document. My recommended form looks like this: 7. Check in on your Employee and/or Make Them Stay Put.  Want to be really aggressive but operate within the law?  I have a handful of clients who explicitly tell employees that it is their policy to check in on the employee if they are using paid sick leave, and then they actually check in on them. Taking this one step further, some clients require their employees to remain in the immediate vicinity of their home while they are recuperating.  If they don’t follow this policy, they face discipline. Think this tactic is illegal?  Think again. One court already upheld this very approach!

8. Follow up on Patterns of Absences. Monday/Friday absences. Taking days off around a holiday to extend time off. These situations smack of FMLA abuse. If you witness a pattern of absences over even a modest period of time (e.g., over a series of weeks or in back-to-back months), we arguably have the right to reach out the employee’s physician. Here, we follow the FMLA regulations (29 CFR 825.308) and ask the employee’s physician to confirm for us whether the pattern you’re witnessing is consistent with Johnny’s serious health condition and his need for leave. (If you sign up for my CALM service, you can obtain your own sample letters for these situations.)

9. Scheduling Medical treatment Around Your Operations. Require that employees make a reasonable effort to schedule medical treatment around your operations and consider temporarily transferring employees (to an equivalent position) where leave is foreseeable based on planned medical treatment. Too many employers simply give up on this requirement, allowing employees to call the shots as to when they will obtain medical treatment, and the employee’s preference is smack dab in the middle of the workday.

10. Conduct a comprehensive audit of your FMLA practices. Work with your employment counsel to ensure that your FMLA policy and forms are up to date, that you are employing the best strategies to combat FMLA abuse and that your FMLA administration is a well-oiled machine.

Remember when I told you a few months ago that employers can and should consider requiring that employees make two calls to request FMLA leave? For instance, you might require one call to the supervisor to report the absence, and a second call to Human Resources (or your third party administrator) to request FMLA leave.

All good, right?

Weeeeeeell, let me share a cautionary tale for those who have implemented or are contemplating this two-call requirement, cause one little ‘ol federal court just threw us a curve ball.

The Facts

LaShondra was employed at a local Burger King restaurant, and during her Saturday shift, she told her boss that her mom was in a “life-or-death situation that required surgery,” and that she needed “a week off” to be with her. In response, her supervisor told her to “take all the time” she needed.

She stayed in touch with her boss about her continued absence for a few days, but then was spotty in her communications on several other days the following week. It was not until the following Wednesday that LaShondra asked her supervisor for FMLA leave. In the meantime, however, she had a no-call, no show that same Wednesday and, although the reasons for her termination the following week were unclear, the no-call, no-show surely was a key factor.

Under BK’s FMLA policy, which was outlined in its employee handbook, employees like LaShondra were obligated to contact both their supervisor and human resources to request FMLA leave. In this instance, LaShondra called her supervisor, but did not call HR to request FMLA leave as required in the policy. In defending against LaShondra’s eventual FMLA claims, BK naturally pointed to LaShondra’s failure to comply with both components of the notice requirements of the FMLA policy. Although LaShondra may have alerted her supervisor, she failed to follow the second part of the notice requirement — contacting human resources to request FMLA leave.

How Did This One Turn Out?

Over the past few years, employers have scored victory after victory where they have implemented a two-phone call notice requirement and the employee has, in turn, not followed the procedure.  As I noted in my previous post on this topic, numerous federal appellate courts have upheld the employer’s right to maintain this rigorous notice obligation.

Not this court.

After analyzing the notice provisions of the FMLA regulations (and preamble!) in painstaking detail, the court rejected BK’s argument that LaShondra’s failure to notify human resources precluded her from taking FMLA leave. Specifically, the court held that an employer can maintain a “two call-in” requirement only if this approach applies across the board for all leave requests.  In other words, this court determined that an employer cannot deny FMLA leave based on an FMLA notice requirement that includes more procedural hurdles than what the employer requires for other types of leave.  Moore v. GPS Hospitality Partners (pdf)

Sadly, the Court didn’t stop there, as it found there were unusual circumstances that prohibited LaShondra from following the call-in requirements anyway. Notably, the court found it unreasonable for LaShondra to have read and understood the obligations contained in the FMLA policy since, after all, she had only been given access to the new employee handbook (with the 2.5 page FMLA policy contained therein) two months earlier and she “didn’t have time” to review the policy.  Curiously, the court also appeared concerned that the employee did not receive an actual hard copy of the handbook, though it was readily accessible to LaShondra in an online format.

Insights for Employers

I had a visceral reaction to this decision after I read it, and my knee-jerk reaction was to wad it up and throw it in the garbage can.

Let me explain.

As an initial matter, the court failed to recognize that the FMLA, by its very own bureaucratic terms, demands that employers and employees alike assume a host of somewhat challenging and time-consuming obligations that simply aren’t required in an ordinary sick leave situation. Indeed, the 2009 regulatory changes made clear that these amendments hoisted several additional responsibilities on employees that do not apply in an typical sick leave situation. So, it’s a bunch of hogwash to fault an employer for implementing a process that is modestly different for FMLA leave than other forms of leave.  Moreover, from a practical standpoint, it’s quite common for employers to have several different processes for requesting sick leave vs. PTO vs. vacation vs. STD leave vs. military leave vs. FMLA leave. So, which of these processes should an employer select so as to remain complaint with this court decision? Following this decision leads potentially to absurd results, though we need to give it due consideration (see recommendations below).

Then, there’s the issue of the employee handbook. Ahem, really?  Even though the employee had online access to the employee handbook and two months to acquaint herself with a 2.5 page FMLA policy (which, by the way, would be among the shortest FMLA policies I’ve seen), the court bought her testimony that she “didn’t have time” to review the handbook and FMLA policy prior to the occasion in which she needed it to care for her mother. How long should an employee have to acquaint themselves with a handbook before the employer can start enforcing its provisions? 6 months? 12 months? Perhaps longer if the employee can show they “didn’t have time” to review it? Where is the personal accountability here? Further, can you imagine the lawless workplaces we’d encounter if employers were handcuffed from enforcing reasonable provisions in an employee handbook? This kind of judicial officiating doesn’t operate in reality.

Oh, and I haven’t even yet gotten to the point where I remind you that several other appellate courts have found this two-call policy perfectly appropriate (and which presumably also dealt with differing procedural requirements for FMLA leave).  How much weight do we give this Burger King decision given the weight of these several other, persuasive decisions?

Perhaps not much. But let’s be careful.  This decision reminds us of a few important principles:

  1. Whenever possible, align paid leave procedures with your FMLA procedures. There is much here to suggest that this case could be limited in persuasive value because of its distinguishable facts, but let’s use it for what it’s worth — we’re in a more defensible position when our procedures for requesting leave of any kind align. [I say this with my teeth clenched . . . ]
  2. Managers must have an understanding of their role in the FMLA process.  Although I did not focus much on the managers’ response to LaShondra’s eventual request for FMLA leave, the reaction is not going to win any best practice awards. In fact, their reaction to her request for leave was pretty horrible and made it fairly clear to me that they didn’t have a clue about their responsibilities under the FMLA.  FMLA training is critical. Don’t push it off.
  3. Managers must be able to recognize when an employee’s request is potentially for an FMLA-qualifying reason and to take steps to ensure that neither the supervisor nor the staff interferes with an employee taking leave protected by the law.
  4. On that same note, one of the quirky facts about this case was the FMLA policy’s requirement that a manager, when informed of the need for FMLA leave, was obligated to advise the employee to go to Human Resources to make the FMLA request. Get this kind of stuff out of your FMLA policy! Don’t put responsibility on the manager to respond in this way, cause once they screw it up, you’re on the hook for the breakdown.  (And in the plaintiff’s deposition in her FMLA case, do you really think the employee is going to agree that the manager actually told her to report the absence to HR? Nope.)  Keep the responsibility always on the employee to report the need for FMLA leave. That doesn’t mean that managers are off the hook — they must be trained on how to properly handle an FMLA request (see No. 2 above!), which should include counseling the employee to report the absence per the employer’s absence policy, but the policy should not bind the manager to respond in a certain manner. As we see here, the court took issue with the fact that the FMLA policy required the manager to act in such a manner, but he didn’t do so. This artificial, procedural hurdle created yet another problem for this employer.
  5. This decision gives heartburn to employers that use third-party administrators, as there are very few TPAs that handle ALL the leave administration for an employer. (Another reason why this decision makes no practical sense.) Employers should consider whether leave requests generally should flow through a common location, such as a TPA or Human Resources.

It’s been just over 10 years since the Department of Labor last introduced wholesale changes to the FMLA regulations.

Remember those happy days back in 2009, when we were introduced to new FMLA notice requirements (for all), clarity over employee eligibility and holidays, emphasis on call-in procedures, favorable bonus language and waivers of FMLA rights?  Oh, and those cute, new FMLA notices and medical certification forms?  Oh goodness, those were fun days!

After a decade in which we witnessed both the introduction and end of Administrator’s Interpretations, a return to opinion letters and a spike in on-site visits from our favorite federal agency, could the DOL be forecasting new changes to the FMLA regulations?

What’s Happening?

The post went largely unnoticed, but the Office of Management and Budget just this week published a notice announcing that the DOL as part of its semi-annual regulatory agenda would be making a “request for information” to:

. . . solicit comments on ways to improve its regulations under the FMLA to: (a) better protect and suit the needs of workers; and (b) reduce administrative and compliance burdens on employers.

Why Does This Seem Like a Big Deal?

It’s a rare occasion for the DOL to solicit feedback on potential changes to the FMLA regulations. Taking the announcement at face value, it certainly appears to suggest that the DOL is interested in revisiting the regulations to determine the ongoing pain points for employers and employees and how regulatory changes could enhance FMLA administration.

To be clear, there is much to enhance. Employers are searching for predictability and certainty in DOL guidance so they can best manage their workplaces.  Whether it’s the scope of information an employer can obtain on a certification, the parameters of recertification and second opinions, or how employers can ensure intermittent leave is being used in the manner for which it was intended, there is plenty to clarify in these regulations!

What is the Likelihood of Wholesale Changes to the FMLA Regulations?

If I am a bettin’ man, which I am not, I don’t expect wholesale changes to the regulations.  Earlier this month, Helen Applewhaite, the DOL’s Branch Chief for FMLA, told attendees at the Disability Management Employer Coalition FMLA/ADA Employer Compliance Conference that the DOL is in the process of reviewing the model medical certification form with an eye toward making the model forms easier to use, which might include reducing demand on physicians in completing forms and ensuring that medical certification provide employers reliable information to more easily determine whether a medical condition is a serious health condition and the parameters around that condition.

I didn’t get the sense from Applewhaite’s presentation that the regulations necessarily would be revisited, but the above notice clearly seems to indicate that something more than just forms could very well be in play.

Stay tuned. This might just be the beginning of a fun ride.

Andy, the Director of Human Resources at one of my clients, called me last week. He was pretty distraught.

One of his employees, we’ll call him Tom, has been battling lung cancer, and he recently learned that the cancer has advanced to stage four.  It’s clear that his days are numbered.

Tom has been a diligent, hard-working employee for several years as part of the employer’s facilities team, and in this role, he is responsible for setting up and breaking down events held by the employer.  Based on Andy’s observations, Tom can no longer perform the essential functions of his job.

In fact, it’s obvious Tom will never be able to perform them.

I quickly sensed that Andy and I were heading toward that part of the conversation when my client invariably asks the question: Do we have an obligation to accommodate Tom’s inability to perform the job and for how long, given that he has a terminal illness?

As if he knew precisely what was swirling in my head, Andy quickly cut off my thought.  And he was blunt with me:

“Jeff, we don’t want to terminate Tom. And we don’t want to put him on leave because he wants to be productive and work. I will make work up for him to do until he feels he can’t work anymore.

But then Andy shared a legitimate concern:

In doing this for him, though, I don’t want to be required to provide light duty or “make-up” work for just any employee who can’t perform their job. If I do this for Tom, will the law require me to do the same for other employees in the future?

Benevolent Employers Are Not Penalized under the Law

Put Andy’s question another way, does his good deed set a precedent for every accommodation request made by his employees in the future?

Thankfully, it does not. Courts have consistently declined to hold to a higher standard a “benevolent” employer that goes above and beyond the call of duty.  A good example is Myers v. Hose, in which a city bus driver was ultimately terminated because he was unable to perform his job duties due to significant restrictions. In support of his ADA claim, the former employee argued that the fact that other employees were provided accommodations when he was not is evidence of discrimination.

Not so fast, said the court. In rejecting this ADA claim, the court clearly did not want to punish a good deed:

. . . the fact that certain accommodations may have been offered . . . to some employees as a matter of good faith does not mean that they must be extended to Myers.  Such a regime would discourage employers from treating disabled employees in a spirit that exceeds the mandates of federal law. If an employer undertook extraordinary treatment in one case, the same level of accommodation would be legally required of it in all subsequent cases; in other words, a good deed would effectively ratchet up liability, and thus not go unpunished.

Taking it further, the court cautioned that “discouraging discretionary accommodations would undermine Congress’ stated purpose of eradicating discrimination against disabled persons.” (In any event, these claims should be dismissed for the additional reason that the plaintiff cannot show that any non-disabled person was treated better than he was treated.)

Additional Insights for Employers

Andy breathed easier after I shared this perspective, and it gave him the flexibility he needed to care for his terminally-ill employee.

What else should employers keep in mind in these situations?

1.  Be Creative.  Are there other accommodations that should be considered for an employee in these situations?  Think about:

  • Modifying job duties
  • Offering flexible working hours, such as starting late and ending early, and giving extra breaks
  • Altering workplace facilities or equipment
  • Providing parking or transportation assistance
  • Permitting time off for medical appointments
  • Changing performance targets to consider the effect of any sick leave or treatment side effects, such as fatigue
  • Changing where the employee works — for example, moving the employee to a ground floor office if he cannot handle climbing stairs
  • Providing computer equipment, such as voice-activated software, if the employee can’t type

2.  Be Compassionate.  We will not be remembered for how much we know or for our great victories, but by how we made someone feel.  Ten years ago this weekend, I lost my father after a tough battle with cancer. As my dad dealt with his illness, I remember with gratitude how his boss treated him in his final days — he allowed my dad to work when he could make it, gave him leave when he needed it, and interacted with him with compassion and empathy. Just as important, I remember how my law firm treated me — with respect, empathy and kindness — as I cared for him in his final days.

Some employers can’t afford to provide make-up work or hold a position open for long. To those who can, the human touch can make a difference. And it’s perfectly legal.

Every one of you employs at least one of these employees — you know, the one who:

  • requests medical leave because of, let’s say, his uromysitisis poisoning (clearly, an FMLA-qualifying condition); but
  • wants to use his accrued paid leave instead of tapping into FMLA?

He might even get indignant, insisting that the law allows him to choose either FMLA leave or ordinary sick leave to cover an absence clearly covered by the FMLA.

How do you respond to this employee?

I have long thought the answer to be a rather simple one: when an absence qualifies as FMLA leave, the employer should designate the leave as FMLA leave.  After all, the regulations tell us that, “once the employer has acquired knowledge that the leave is being taken for an FMLA-qualifying reason, the employer must [designate the absence as FMLA leave].” 29 C.F.R. 825.301(a)  There is nothing in this regulation to suggest that the employee can influence this process. To the contrary, the regulation states that the employer designates once it knows the absence is for an FMLA-qualifying reason.

But I’ve not had much to point to beyond the regulations to support my position.

That changed yesterday. Never thought I’d say this, but the DOL got my back!

In a straightforward, practical opinion letter, the U.S. Department of Labor addressed yesterday whether an employee could delay FMLA leave and instead utilize accrued paid leave when the absence clearly would qualify as FMLA leave. The DOL’s answer was swift and unequivocal:

An employer is prohibited from delaying the designation of FMLA-qualifying leave as FMLA leave.  Once an eligible employee communicates the need to take leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason, neither the employee nor the employer may decline FMLA protection for that leave. (My emphasis)

If that wasn’t clear enough, the DOL doubled down just a few sentences later:

The employer may not delay designating leave as FMLA-qualifying, even if the employee would prefer that the employer delay the designation . . . [If] an employee substitutes paid leave for unpaid FMLA leave, the employee’s paid leave counts toward his or her 12-week (or 26-week) FMLA entitlement and does not expand that entitlement.

Insights for Employers

How does this opinion letter impact employers?

  1. It brings clarity. Those of us who operate in the leave law world may greet this opinion letter with a yawn. However, the employer community has long considered this issue to be a gray area in FMLA administration.  Now they have an answer: an employee doesn’t get to choose whether or not an absence is covered by the FMLA. Now, when any absence qualifies as FMLA leave, the DOL has made clear that it must be designated as FMLA leave.
  2.  It’s Particularly Helpful to Unionized Employers and Public Sector Employers. This opinion letter may end up impacting these employers the most. It’s not uncommon for collective bargaining provisions or public sector personnel policies to allow employees first to use paid leave, followed by FMLA leave. This opinion letter gives these employers the leverage they need to negotiate CBA provisions and establish policies designating FMLA leave at the earliest opportunity whenever FMLA applies.  Thank you, DOL!
  3. Despite the Clarity for the Rest of Us, the Opinion Letter Creates Quite a Trick Bag for Employers in the 9th Circuit.  Let me explain. Several years ago, in Escriba v. Foster Poultry Farms, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that an employee actually can decline FMLA leave and use paid leave instead, even though the underlying reason for leave would have been FMLA-qualifying leave. Since this decision was issued in 2014, employers in the 9th Circuit have been left scratching their collective heads about whether and how they should designate FMLA leave when an employee declines it.  In issuing this opinion letter, however, the DOL pulls no punches in noting its disagreement with the Escriba decision (see footnote 3 of the opinion letter). Since the decision in 2014, DOL leadership has publicly questioned whether the Escriba decision should be followed. Yesterday, it voiced that displeasure in writing, noting that it “disagreed” with the 9th Circuit’s take that an employee is able to decline FMLA leave. I will continue to counsel my 9th Circuit employer clients the same way I always have: designate the leave under the FMLA!
  4. Employers Can Still Be Generous with Their Paid and Unpaid Leave Programs.  This opinion letter doesn’t mean you need to be stingy with the paid and unpaid leave programs you provide employees. In fact, the regulations explicitly tell us, “Nothing in FMLA supersedes any provision of State or local law that provides greater family or medical leave rights than those provided by FMLA.” 29 CFR 825.701(a) So, there is nothing stopping you from providing additional leave when FMLA leave ends. As this opinion letter points out, however, you simply can’t designate the additional leave as FMLA leave once an employee has exhausted 12 weeks of FMLA leave.

If you’re really geeked out on this issue, feel free to review the coverage of this opinion letter on Law360 (subscription required).

I can’t imagine anything more exciting than having joined Littler earlier this year.  [Click here to read about that virtual love fest.]

But I have found a close second: the arrival of the American Bar Association’s summary of every FMLA case decided in 2018!

Yep, you read that correctly.  Every little scrumptious FMLA decision. 

About mid-February or so, the ABA’s Federal Labor Standards Legislation Committee publishes a comprehensive report of FMLA decisions handed down by the federal courts in the previous year.  [Those little ABA rascals kept it from me this year till March, but I finally found it today.] Although our little FMLA blog catches some of the big FMLA cases as they occur throughout the year, the ABA’s annual report includes all FMLA decisions from this past year. This year’s report is as comprehensive as always — it summarizes 2018 FMLA decisions in a user-friendly manner and is a great reference for me throughout the year.

The report can be accessed here (pdf). I encourage you to print it off and keep it by your side as a valuable FMLA resource.

I am bursting at my FMLA seams, and I’ve been dying to share the news with my blog readers.

A few weeks ago, six colleagues and I decided to leave our Chicago-based boutique firm and venture toward the labor and employment powerhouse: Littler Mendelson P.C. Littler is the world’s largest employment practice representing employers, and I am joining with dear friends and phenomenal attorneys, Dave Radelet, Chris Johlie, Staci Ketay Rotman, Terry Creamer and Leah Farmer.

I knew I reached FMLA nirvana when I attended my very first meeting at Littler: a 7am Saturday morning confab that was part of a Littler shareholders’ annual retreat. Packed into the conference room were about 25 other Littler shareholders whose sole mission in life is to conquer FMLA, ADA and state leave law issues on behalf of employers.

At 7am on a Saturday morning, there ain’t nothing that gives me goose bumps.

But at this 7am call to order of 25 FMLA nerds? Goosebumps. Full on goosebumps. Next thing they’ll tell me is that we bake FMLA cupcakes together on Fridays as a team-building exercise.  [Ahem, Littler: I prefer pistachio, please.]

And that’s just the core group, mind you. In joining Littler, I’m now a member of the “Leave and Accommodation Practice Group,” which consists of nearly 250 Littler attorneys who ❤ leave and accommodations law almost as much as I do.  This group is headed up by Michelle Falconer and Casey Kurtz, and it’s a force to be reckoned with.

At that memorable 7am meeting, one of my new leave law colleagues, Ellen Storch, forecasted what my Littler experience would be like. “Before I joined Littler, it’s as if I practiced in black and white. With everything Littler offers to practice law, I feel like I now practice in technicolor.” Well said, Ellen. Well said.

For years, I’ve admired Littler attorneys who have been a wealth of knowledge and wisdom for me in the FMLA area — people like Dana Connell, Erin Webber and Alexis Knapp. Now, I get to practice law with these friends, and our clients reap the benefits.

Enough of the Sappy Stuff, Jeff! Are There FMLA Lessons to Learned Here?

My dear readers: as you scroll through this post, I can tell you’re worried about me. Indeed, I sense exactly what’s on your mind: Jeff, you’re exposed. Because you’ve not worked for Littler for 12 months and 1,250 hours, you can’t take any FMLA leave for at least one whole year. Are you absolutely positive you want to do this?

I want to put your mind at ease right out of the gate. So, I’ve compiled the following FAQs based off the questions I’ve received from you over the past few weeks. These Q&As might just apply to a few of your own employees, too.

Q.  Are You a Temp Employee at Littler? Or are You a Regular, Full-time Attorney and Do Your Hours Count Toward FMLA Eligibility?  We ask because we’re concerned that any firm would want to hire on a full-time basis a guy who spends so much of his time infatuated with the FMLA?

A. I know — I totally pulled one over on Littler, as I’ve wanted to slowly let them in on my FMLA obsession. Who ever would want a guy so enamored with leave and accommodation law? A bit creepy, perhaps?

Never fear, I am a shareholder, and I’ve been told I am a full-fledged regular employee of the firm.  Even if I were a temp employee, the DOL has made clear that these hours count toward my FMLA eligibility. In fact, I covered this rather quirky concept in a previous blog post.

Q.  If Littler asked you to practice for a time in one of its international offices, would you still be covered by the FMLA?

A. Ah yes, thanks for the reminder! Have I mentioned that Littler is the largest employment practice in the world representing employers with attorneys licensed in all 50 states, offices in 35 out of the 50 states (as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico) and in approximately 20 countries around the globe?  We literally can assist clients anywhere and everywhere.

But I digress. To answer your question, with the exception of Title VII, ADA and ADEA, employment laws do not apply to U.S. citizens working outside the country, even if they are working for an American company.  So, a U.S. national loses FMLA protection once that individual steps off U.S. soil and works for one work week in another country. But is the converse true? For instance, are foreign nationals on H-1B work visas eligible for FMLA leave? I’ve answered that one here.

Q.  The word on the FMLA circuit is that you’re planning to celebrate your move to Littler with a little derriere augmentation? Is this true? And if so, would it be covered by FMLA?

A. Oh, you guys! I mean, I definitely could use a little derriere augmentation, but it just ain’t my style. In any event, we know from a previous post that time off for cosmetic surgery is not covered unless it involves an overnight stay or complications develop. [If nothing else, click on the link above for one of my all-time favorite FMLA Insights blog photos!]

Q.  Jeff, congrats on the move. But the only thing I really care about is whether your FMLA Insights blog will continue now that you’re at Littler. Yes or no, and don’t give me an attorney answer like, “Well, it depends . . .”?

A. This is the single most common question I’ve faced since my move to Littler. It warms the cockles of my heart to know how much you care [only about my blog].

I am pleased to report that, after a brief hiatus to modernize the look, my FMLA Insights blog will continue and all its archives are available to you. The blog will not be affiliated with Littler, but I will remain the sole author. If you’ve not yet subscribed to my blog, please do so on the right side of this page.

Fair warning: In the time ahead, I will incorporate even more ADA principles in my posts to expand our collective horizons a bit.  Never fear — FMLA is my first love, and I ain’t about to start cheating on her now.

Q.  At your annual FMLA webinar, you typically sing FMLA songs. Now that you’ve moved to a worldwide law firm, does this mean no more singing? For the record, I am hoping so, as the Capella bit is slightly off-putting, don’t you think?

A. Does a bear poop in the woods? You better believe I am singing! And because I am now at Littler, it’s going to be better than ever.

Btw, I am taking song requests now.

 

All kidding aside, I am so grateful for all of the words of support I’ve received from clients and my loyal FMLA Insights subscribers as I’ve transitioned to Littler over the past few weeks.  You can now reach me at:

E-mail: jnowak@littler.com

Phone: (312) 795-3295

I am elated to show my clients the technicolor world that is Littler. Let’s get down to business!

Thanks to those who attended my webinar last week with Matt Morris on “Six Ways Your Managers Are Causing FMLA & ADA Leave Lawsuits, and How to Train Them to Stop.” A link to the recording can be accessed here (just requires providing some basic info about you) and the presentation PowerPoint can be downloaded here.

To those who attended, thank you.  To those who missed it, you still have time to access the recording.  As promised, Matt and I provided a road map of all the necessary issues to address in an FMLA training session, including case studies you can use with your managers.

In this session, we provided you material to train your managers in six key compliance areas:

  • The Space Case: The manager who should have known the employee put the manager on notice of the need for FMLA leave, but failed to do anything about it.  In most training sessions, you will spend most of your time here, since you want your managers to be able to recognize when an employee may need a leave of absence for a medical condition and what they should do with this information.
  • The Lazybones:  The manager who knew the employee needed a medical leave of absence, but failed to direct the employee’s request to the proper channels.  As a result, the employer fell out of compliance and risked FMLA liability.
  • The Head Stuck in the Book:  The manager who fails to recognize patterns of FMLA abuse, such as Monday/Friday absences, absences in conjunction with holidays, and when managers learn of information indicating that the employee is misusing FMLA leave.
  • The Oversharer:  The manager who responds inappropriately to an FMLA leave request, such as telling the employee “it’s not a good time to take leave,” or making a snide comment about an employee’s leave of absence in an email.
  • The Badgerer: The manager who requires an employee to perform substantive work while on FMLA leave or keeps bugging an employee when they should not be working while on FMLA leave.
  • The Troublemaker: The manager who tainted the termination decision by injecting his discriminatory tendencies into the decision-making.

Of course, we ended with a holiday jingle. So, I leave you with my warm regards for a Happy Holiday and peaceful New Year, and the lyrics to the holiday song “Oh Rest Ye Bumbling Managers” which we sung to the tune of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by the Bare Naked Ladies (a version which you can listen to or skip on the recording!):

I hired a volatile manager, his name was Ross 

He’s always on a power trip, people call him “The Boss”

He tends to fire those with da gout or chronic IBS

Oh tidings of FMLA . . . FMLA . . . Oh tidings of FMLA

* * *

Ross told his secretary “It’s a bad time for medical leave”

Then he gave her a parting gift, a book called “No More Hysterectomy”

I’m worried what next slur he’ll use at our 3pm meeting

Oh tidings of FMLA . . . FMLA . . . Oh tidings of FMLA

* * *

This law is a wonder, this law is chore

It makes me scared to hire employees anymore

But if I don’t train (or fire) Ross, come tomorrow

I will find the DOL at my front door!

* * *

Thanks again to those who attended the webinar. I look forward to your feedback on the issues we discussed.

Happy Holidays!

It’s the end of the year, which means bonus time.

Or perhaps instead you want to offer a pay incentive to employees to improve attendance or production?  Take, for instance, a point-based attendance bonus policy in which employees are assessed points for every tardiness or absence (even for FMLA or ADA-covered leave), which, in turn, disqualifies an employee from receiving the incentive.

In these situations, can an employer disqualify an employee from the bonus or incentive?

In short, Yes.

The FMLA regulations provide in relevant part:

. . . if a bonus or other payment is based on the achievement of a specified goal such as hours worked, products sold or perfect attendance, and the employee has not met the goal due to FMLA leave, then the payment may be denied, unless otherwise paid to employees on an equivalent leave status for a reason that does not qualify as FMLA leave.  For example, if an employee who used paid vacation leave for a non-FMLA purpose would receive the payment, then the employee who used paid vacation leave for an FMLA-protected purpose also must receive the payment.

29 C.F.R. § 825.215(c)(2) (my emphasis and bold).  When qualifying employees for and/or calculating bonus payments or incentives, employers must treat employees who take FMLA leave the same as those who are on “an equivalent leave status for a reason that does not qualify as FMLA leave.” So, bottom line, if you deny bonuses and incentives to those on other, similar forms of leave — such as absences related to jury duty leave, military leave to ADA leave — you can deny the same bonus to the employee who took FMLA leave.

But what about unconditional pay increases automatically given to employees? That’s a different story. When increases such as a cost of living increase are provided to all employees without any condition attached, an employee who has taken FMLA leave is entitled to the same increase.

Other Holiday Pay Issues

What about other FMLA issues you face around the holidays, such as holiday pay during FMLA leave, calculating FMLA during the holidays, and dealing with an employee who plays hooky during the holidays?  See my other posts on these issues below: