Many business owners think of FMLA only when an employee is ready to go out on maternity leave or if an employee is facing a catastrophic illness such as cancer. FMLA also covers migraine headaches, back pain, influenza – and other illnesses that are considered to be “chronic or a serious health condition”.
Employers and their supervisors and managers need to know the “red flags” on what to consider to be a FMLA occurrence and how to manage it.
As a reminder, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. It also requires that their group health benefits be maintained during the leave. FMLA is designed to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. It also seeks to accommodate the legitimate interests of employers and promote equal employment opportunity for men and women.
FMLA applies to all public agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. These employers must provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for any of the following reasons:
1. for the birth and care of the newborn child of an employee;
2. for placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care;
3. to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
4. to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
Employees are eligible for leave if they have worked for their employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles. Whether an employee has worked the minimum 1,250 hours of service is determined according to FLSA principles for determining compensable hours or work. Time taken off work due to pregnancy complications can be counted against the 12 weeks of family and medical leave. Special rules apply to employees of local education agencies.
Many employers often think of the FMLA as a law that comes into play only when an employee is getting ready to take a maternity leave or when they have a debilitating illness requiring an extended hospital stay. Those are obviously scenarios where the FMLA is implicated, but the act provides much greater coverage. Any chronic condition, such as asthma or diabetes, that requires a continuing course of treatment can trigger FMLA coverage, as can mental illnesses, such as depression or anxiety. Those types of health conditions often require intermittent leaves of absence, which many employers find to be particularly disruptive or subject to abuse.
Simplifying Definition of ‘Serious Health Condition’
Another point of confusion for managers is how multifaceted the definition of “serious health condition” is. Try and keep it simple: If the employee or a family member is in the hospital, if the employee misses more than three consecutive days of work, or if the employee has a pattern of being absent for the same health condition or for a family member’s health condition, call HR as soon as possible or consider FMLA.
A frequent complaint from managers is that an employee who calls in sick does not provide sufficient information for the manager to determine whether the absence is FMLA-qualifying. This is particularly true where the employer has an attendance policy that allows employees to leave messages or send e-mails regarding absences. Also, many employees do not wish to disclose specific information about their health, and simply report they are sick and unable to come to work. When this occurs, a manager cannot, for example, discern whether the employee has a simple cold or a full-blown case of influenza.
Managers don’t know how much follow-up information they can seek and don’t always realize they need to involve HR to provide guidance and support to managers faced with vague information about an employee’s repeated or prolonged absences.
It might be prudent for companies to consider adopting a three-day rule—meaning they automatically require eligible employees to provide medical certifications clarifying whether absences due to illness lasting more than three consecutive calendar days are FMLA-qualifying.
As far as simplifying the definition of “serious health condition” for managers, try to focus training on two categories of serious health conditions that seem to be misunderstood the most: chronic serious health conditions and pregnancy. Managers must thoroughly understand that any period of incapacity associated with these two categories of serious health conditions is covered.