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.

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:

When: Wednesday, December 12 (12:00 – 1:15 p.m. central time)

Online registration: Click Here

Over the past year alone, employers have been forced to defend FMLA and ADA lawsuits due simply to an inappropriate comment from a manager after an employee requests time off or an accommodation in the workplace.

A snide comment about an employee in an email . . . Discussing an employee’s medical condition with others in a meeting . . . Telling an employee that the Company “can’t afford” for him to take time off.  Despite an employer’s best policies (and intentions), all it takes is a new or untrained manager to cause an FMLA or ADA-related lawsuit.

In what has become my annual FMLA mega webinar, I will be joined again by my friend, Matt Morris, VP of FMLASource, for “Six Ways Your Managers are Causing FMLA & ADA Lawsuits, and How to Train Them to Stop.” This webinar will be held on December 12 at 12 noon CST.

Our complimentary webinar will use a case-study format to show how your managers undermine otherwise compliant corporate policies and HR practices. More importantly, we then will give you the content to create your very own FMLA and ADA training program. Yep, you read that correctly. We will give you the content to create your own training program.

And we’re doing it for free.  [We’re not very smart business people, are we?]

In this session, Matt and I will focus on:

  • How managers are increasingly undermining an employer’s defense of an FMLA and ADA lawsuit, and how to identify the risk factors
  • Where to look for the most common pitfalls in how managers handle FMLA and ADA leave – through in-depth discussion of scenarios and related cases
  • Constructive methods you can use to train managers in the process of both FMLA and ADA leaves. Did I mentioned that we will provide much of the actual content you should use in your FMLA and ADA training sessions? Ahem, yes, we will.

And I just may sing you a song before it’s over.

This program has been submitted to the HR Certification Institute and SHRM for review and credit. Continuing Legal Education credit also will be available to attorneys attending the program. For attorneys in states other than Illinois, we will provide proof of attendance, but CLE credit will be governed by your particular state’s rules.

Not sure where you stand on this, but I’m always game for a good employer smack down on FMLA abuse.

This smack down comes courtesy of the City of Chicago.

You know, the City of Big Shoulders, the Second City (to no one), the Windy City [little known fact: the nickname “Windy City” comes not from the cold winds that blow off Lake Michigan but from the City’s “windy” politicians. No joke.].

I digress.

Picture a 911 call center deep in the City of Chicago. Pretty busy, yes? And like many other call centers, this 911 call center has plenty of employees who take FMLA leave.

In fact, two years ago, nearly 50 percent of the center’s call takers were on some type of absence tied to the FMLA.

Imagine if on any given workday, 50 percent of your work force was absent on FMLA leave.

Could you run a business? Let that sink in for a second.

Fast forward to today, when the call center’s executive director reported this past week that the call center has reduced FMLA use by 4,000 hours, reduced absenteeism by over 900 shifts and lowered overtime costs by nearly $1 million.

Ahem, nearly $1 million in reduced overtime costs.  

How did the City of Chicago do it? According to the call center’s top dog, the City has used several critical tools to reduce FMLA abuse:

  • Conducted FMLA training for all managers so they understand their role in the FMLA process and how to interact with employees requesting leave
  • Empowered managers to ask their employees questions about their leave “without fear”
  • Initiated meetings with employees when they recognized a pattern of absenteeism, such as Friday/Monday call offs, or call offs in conjunction with a holiday or sporting event
  • Those who have abused FMLA leave have been shown the door. Lawfully. Shown. The. Door.

Insights for Employers

The City’s outstanding work to reduce FMLA abuse is a call to action for the rest of us. In previous posts, I have droned on ad nauseam about all the tools available to crack down on FMLA abuse.  Some of my favorite blog posts on this topic are here and here.

But let me hone in on how you can specifically follow the City of Chicago’s lead to reduce FMLA abuse in your own workplace:

  1. Train your managers so they are empowered to help you address misuse of FMLA leave. Employers often are reluctant to engage their managers about the FMLA or to include them in the FMLA process. This is understandable, as managers can create liability by what they say or do. However, they are your gatekeepers, and if properly trained, they can be incredibly effective as FMLA abuse busters, since they are your eyes and ears among your rank and file.
  2. Ask questions “without fear.”  When your employees call off work, they should be required at a minimum to explain the reason for their absence and when they expect to return to work. If they offer even a hint of a medical condition as the reason for their absence, the properly trained manager (or properly trained leave administrator) should ask follow-up questions to determine whether the absence may be covered by FMLA. What are those questions? See Tip #2 in my previous post.
  3. Meet with the employee to set expectations as to reporting their absences. Several of my clients do this, and I am a big fan. Here, after FMLA has been approved, the employer (whether the manager or HR rep) meets with the employee to remind him/her about call-in requirements, what information they are expected to provide when they call in, and the consequences for failing to follow the call-in policy or providing medical information when requested by the employer.
  4. Meet again with the employee where you observe patterns of suspected abuse. When a leave request or use of leave seems fishy, don’t ignore it. Be candid with your employee about it and ask questions about the circumstances so you can, in turn, determine whether you have a right to be concerned.  Chicago’s call center executive put it this way:

Once we see a trend, we sit down with the employee and let them know we’re seeing a trend. Is there something behind that? We like to look at our employees holistically — not just the time they’re at work. Maybe there’s something that causes that trend. And where we see clear cases of abuses, we are recommending them to be fired and put on the do-not-hire list.

Hats off to the City of Chicago for clamping down on FMLA abuse and providing some practical steps the rest of us can put in place to do the same!

Q: We have an employee who recently had a child placed with her for foster care. (It is her niece.) She wants to take eight weeks of FMLA leave to bond with the foster child, but wants to know if she can take an additional eight weeks of FMLA leave when she adopts the child. She anticipates that the adoption likely will occur sometime next year.

A. My head is spinning, as there are a couple of potential issues here.  First, is this an actual foster “placement,” since it’s an aunt and niece relationship?  Second, when can an employee take FMLA leave for foster care?  And finally, can an employee obtain more than 12 weeks of FMLA leave if they are fostering first and then adopting a child?

So many issues. I answer them, in turn, below.

Is This Even Foster Care?

The reference to a “niece” in the question above has me wondering whether a foster care relationship even exists. Simply because an aunt or family member takes in another family member does not mean we have a foster care situation.  Under the FMLA, foster care is defined as:

  1. 24‑hour care for children in substitution for, and away from, their parents or guardian; and
  2. The placement into foster care involves state action, voluntary or involuntary removal of the child from the parents or guardian, and an agreement between the State and foster family that the foster family will take care of the child. 29 CFR 825.122(g)

So, foster care = 24-hour care plus involvement of the State.

That’s not to say that foster care must be a permanent arrangement. In fact, there is a good chance it won’t involve a long-term arrangement; yet, it still enjoys the protection of the FMLA.  The Department of Labor said as much in one of its earliest opinion letters:

Neither the statute nor implementing regulations imposes a minimum period of time or permanency in connection with a foster care placement for FMLA leave purposes. So long as the placement is the result of a foster care agreement between the foster parents and the state, leave to care for the newly placed foster child would be considered FMLA leave

When Can an Employee Take FMLA Leave for Foster Care?

Clearly, an eligible employee can take FMLA leave to bond with their foster child upon placement.

Keep in mind, though, that the employee also can take FMLA leave before the actual placement if an absence from work is required for the placement for foster care to proceed. As the regulations note, the employee “may be required to attend counseling sessions, appear in court, consult with his or her attorney or the doctor(s) representing the birth parent, submit to a physical examination, or travel to another country to complete an adoption.” 29 CFR 825.121(a)(1)

Is the Employee Entitled to 12 Weeks for Foster Care Placement and Another 12 weeks Should They Adopt the Child?

In short, no. The FMLA regulations clearly state that an employee’s FMLA leave entitlement is limited to a total of 12 workweeks of leave during any 12-month period for the “placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care, and to care for the newly placed child” (emphasis added). 29 CFR 825.200(a)

Another DOL opinion letter notes that this regulation is based on legislative history, which emphasizes that FMLA leave is available to care for a “child newly placed with the employee for adoption or foster care.” Senate Report No. 103-3, p.24.

Both the regulation and legislative history indicate that only the initial date of placement with a family triggers the right to leave. Therefore, the niece in this instance would be “newly placed” at the time of the foster care placement rather than when any subsequent adoption occurs.

No two bites at the apple on this one. The employee must complete 12 weeks of FMLA leave within the first 12 months of placement for foster care, and that’s all she’s entitled to.