Category Archives: Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

FMLA: Forgetting Minutiae Leads to (legal) Actions – Part II

As we continue through the convoluted maze of arcane rules known as the FMLA, we turn our focus to what makes an employee eligible for FMLA leave.

Generally, an employee of a covered employer is eligible to take FMLA leave, if the employee satisfies three requirements. They are:

(1)  the employee has been employed by the employer for at least 12 months;

(2)  the employee has been employed by the employer at least 1,250 hours of service during the 12-month period immediately preceding the commencement of the leave; and

(3)  the employee is employed at a worksite where 50 or more employees are employed by the employer within 75 miles of the worksite.

These requirements do not apply to flight attendants and flight crew members. Persons in such positions are subject to special eligibility requirements that are not covered in this series.

Although these three requirements may seem pretty straightforward, they are not as clear cut as they appear. Accordingly, below you will find a few questions and answers designed to assist in understanding the concept of the “covered employee.”

Does the 12 months of service have to be consecutive?

No. The 12 months of service need not be consecutive. Generally, any combination of 52 weeks equals 12 months. Even so, a seven year break in service with the employer generally cuts off any prior service except in certain limited circumstances. Such circumstances include, but are not limited to, military service covered by The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) or written agreement, including a collective bargaining agreement.

When should it be determined if the employee meets the months of service requirement?

The determination of whether an employee has been employed by the employer for a total of 12 months must be made as of the date the FMLA leave is to start.

How are the hours of service calculated?

The FLMA’s definition of “hours of service” applies for the calculation of 1,250 hours. Accordingly, hours of service does not include those hours for which an employee is paid but does not work, such as holidays, paid vacation, and sick leave. Hours worked does include time worked as a part-time, temporary, or seasonal employee.

An employee returning from USERRA-covered military service is credited with the hours of service that would have been performed but for the period of absence from work due to or necessitated by USERRA-covered service in determining the employee’s eligibility for FMLA-qualifying leave.

If an issue arises with respect to employee coverage, the Department of Labor takes the position that the employer has the burden of showing that the employee has not met the hours of service requirement.

When should it be determined if the employee meets the hours of service requirement?

The determination of whether an employee meets the hours of service requirement must be made as of the date the requested FMLA leave is to start.

How does an employer determine if there are 50 employees within a 75-mile radius of employee’s worksite?

First, it has to be determined where the employee’s worksite is. An employee’s worksite is the site where an employee reports. If the employee does not travel to a specific location to work, then the worksite is the location from where the employee receives assignments.

For employees with no fixed worksite (e.g., construction workers, transportation workers, salespersons), the worksite is the site that is assigned as their home base, from which their work is assigned, or to which they report. With very few exemptions, an employee’s personal residence is not considered a worksite.

The 75-mile distance is measured by surface miles, using surface transportation over public streets, roads, highways, and waterways, by the shortest route from the facility where the employee needing leave is employed.

While public-sector employers are covered regardless of the number of employees employed, to be an eligible employee entitled to take FMLA leave, the public-sector employee must still be employed at a worksite in which the employer employs at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.

When should an employer determine if there are 50 employees within a 75-mile radius of employee’s worksite?

The determination of whether 50 employees are employed within 75 miles of the worksite is made when the employee gives notice of the need for leave.

What happens when an employee does not meet all three requirements until after the employee’s need for leave has begun?

An employee’s full FMLA rights are triggered as of FMLA eligibility. An employer cannot designate leave happening before the eligibility date as FMLA leave; and therefore, the employee becomes entitled to the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave in addition to any previously taken leave.

The first post in our series on FMLA summarized the steps an employer should follow when dealing with the FMLA labyrinth. The next FMLA posts in this series will address the FMLA’s original qualifying reasons for leave and then the qualifying reasons added in 2008.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558

FMLA: Forgetting Minutiae Leads to (legal) Actions

This post was co-authored by Jennifer Fowler-Hermes and John Getty.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (or the FMLA) is often viewed as a convoluted maze of arcane rules. Generally, the FMLA requires covered employers provide qualifying employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for certain qualifying events. This simple explanation belies how technical the FMLA can be. Because it is very technical, the FMLA is one of the laws that employers most frequently ask questions about. Taking one wrong turn can easily lead to employer liability. This post is the first in a series to help employers stay on the right path.

In this series, we will review not only the basics of the FMLA, but also several areas where employers often go astray. Our journey through the FMLA starts with a handy map summarizing the steps an employer should follow when dealing with the FMLA labyrinth.

Step 1:  An employer determines whether or not it is a covered employer.

Step 2:  If it is covered, an employer should then prepare and share an FMLA leave policy with its employees and must post certain notices to its employees.

Step 3: If an employee requests FMLA leave, or the employer learns that an employee’s absence may be for a qualifying reason, then a covered employer must determine whether the employee is eligible for FMLA leave. If the employee is not eligible, the employer must notify the employee of the decision and utilize the appropriate designation form. If the employee is eligible, the employer must proceed to the next step.

Step 4: Provide the employee eligibility and rights and responsibilities notices to the employee.

Step 5:  The employer must then determine if the leave request is for an FMLA-qualifying reason.

Step 6: The employer should determine whether the employee qualifies as a “key employee” for whom specialized rules apply. Key employees will be addressed in a separate post in this series.

Step 7: The employer may require the employee go through a certification process, which is optional.

  • If the certification process is utilized, then the employer should notify the employee about the certification and provide time for certification.

Step 8: The employer must either grant or deny the leave request and provide a designation notice to the employee.

Step 9: After leave is granted, then the employer must:

  • Restore the employee to the same or an equivalent position at the end of the leave (unless the employee is a “key” employee); and
  • Maintain benefits during the leave (with exemptions – which will be discussed later in the series).

Step 10: Maintain records for the entire decision-making process.

Because it’s part of the first step in navigating the FMLA maze, and it represents a core concept of the FMLA, below you will find a serious of questions and answers designed to assist in understanding the concept of the “covered employer.”

What is a covered employer? 

It’s an  employer that has legal obligations under the FMLA.

Who are covered employers?

There are a couple types of covered employers subject to the provisions of the FMLA. One of the main covered employers are private employers with 50 or more employees during 20 or more workweeks in the current or previous calendar year.

Public agencies, regardless of the number of employees the public agency employs (public agencies include state, local and federal employers, and local educational agencies), are also covered employers. In addition, public and private elementary and secondary schools are covered employers, regardless of the number of persons employed.

Finally, covered employers also include any person who acts in the interest of the employer toward any of the employees of such employer, and any successor in interest of the employer.

How does a private-employer count employees to determine coverage?

With few exemptions, any employee whose name appears on the employer’s payroll will be considered employed each working day of the calendar week and must be counted regardless of whether compensation is received for the week. However, employees added to the payroll after the beginning of a calendar week or terminated before the end of a calendar week are not counted.

There are special issues that arise when an employer does not by itself have the requisite number of employees but is considered a joint employer with a second company. For example, when two or more businesses exert control over the workplace or working conditions, it is possible that the employees of both businesses are counted together.

What about employees on paid or unpaid leave?

They are counted so long as the employer reasonably expects the employee to return later to active employment.

Does the same rule apply for employees on disciplinary suspensions?

Yes, again, so long as the employer reasonably expects the employee to return later to active employment, the employee is counted.

What about employees who are laid off?

Employees on temporary or permanent layoff are not counted.

The questions and answers above summarize the main issues with that crop up at Step 1.

*The next FMLA post in this series will skip ahead to Step 3 and address what makes someone an employee eligible for FMLA leave, since it is one of the other important concepts to understand while navigating the FMLA.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558

John Getty
jgetty@williamsparker.com
(941) 329-6622

How Well Do You Know Intermittent FMLA Leave?

A recent Family and Medical Leave Act case decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals offers some clarity on one of the most challenging aspects of administering FMLA, the dreaded intermittent leave. Intermittent leave is when an employee takes leave on an intermittent basis or a reduced schedule when medically necessary to care for a seriously ill family member, covered service member, or because of the employee’s own serious health condition.

The 11th Circuit’s recent case involved an employer that provides in-home healthcare services to the terminally ill and an employee that worked as a clinical social worker with many duties relating to care plans for the employer’s terminally ill patients. The employee requested intermittent leave to care for her elderly mother who was quite ill. The employer approved her leave request.

The employer’s leave policies required employees use PTO concurrently with an approved medical leave. In the six months following her initial request for leave, the employee frequently received notices from her employer keeping her advised of her PTO usage and letting her know when her PTO balance was low. It also reminded her that exhaustion of PTO, along with absences, could adversely impact her job and benefits.

Ten months after her initial request for leave, the employer requested not only an updated certification, but also additional documentation “to support the need of intermittent use of FMLA.” Shortly thereafter, the employer advised the employee that her leave entitlement was running low, that she may want to conserve her remaining FMLA leave, and that her continued time away from the workplace compromised the quality of care being provided to patients. Shortly thereafter, the employee altered the plans she had made to care for her mother, choosing not to take an approved leave.

Eleven months after she began using intermittent leave the employee was separated from her employment. She was informed that she was separated for poor performance. Her performance issues were documented by the employer. These issues included care plans not being timely updated, a patient without a care plan, time sheets for patient visits not being timely completed, and failure to coordinate the bereavement group. However, just days before her separation, the employer mentioned in a discussion regarding her performance issues, that “’quality of care’ [was] suffering due to repeated ‘emergent’ leaves of absence.”

How did the court evaluate these facts when the employee asserted an interference claim? Did it find that the employer’s record of performance issues supported the decision to terminate? Did it find that the employer interfered with the employee’s use of her FMLA entitlement? Need some help? Well, here are some FMLA facts that may assist in analyzing this fact pattern:

  • The regulations provide that when an employee takes unforeseeable FMLA leave, the employee must notify the employer as soon as practicable in compliance with the employer’s usual and customary notice and procedural requirements for requesting leave.
  • The regulations interpreting the FMLA provide that, aside from an annual re-certification, an employer is prohibited from obtaining additional documentation from the healthcare provider once a complete and sufficient medical certification has been obtained.
  • If there is an existing certification, an employee’s notice to the employer that there is a recurrence of the need for leave, is sufficient notice to the employer.
  • When an employee’s FMLA leave entitlement is exhausted, any further absences are not subject to the protections of the FMLA.
  • An interference claim is established when an employee shows that she was denied a benefit to which she was entitled. Benefits under the FMLA include taking leave and being reinstated following a leave period (subject to certain restrictions).
  • Unlike retaliation claims, intent is not relevant to an interference claim. Interfering in an employee’s ability to take leave encompasses not only refusing to authorize such leave when an employee is qualified, but also discouraging an employee from using such leave.
  • To recover for interference, an employee must show that she was harmed by the interference.

Although the district court granted summary judgment for the employer on the employee’s interference claim, the 11th Circuit Court reversed. The 11th Circuit found that many of the employer’s statements, such as, “[y]our continued unpaid time away from the workplace compromises the quality of care we are able to provide as an organization,” discouraged the employee from using the time she was entitled to. Further, since the employee was terminated, she suffered damage.

So, you ask, how does this case provide clarity? For one, it affirms that generally employers should not be requesting additional documentation from an employee already on an approved intermittent leave. Second, employers should avoid making statements that may be interpreted as discouraging the use of leave. Next, when discussing performance issues with an employee on an intermittent leave employers should not provide a causal connection between the leave and the performance issue, i.e., focus on a discussion of the performance difficulty and ascertain what can be done by the employee (other than to stop missing so much work) to improve performance. Finally, do not forget that during the period of intermittent leave, the employer may require the employee to transfer temporarily to an available alternative position with equivalent pay and benefits, for which she is qualified and which better accommodates the intermittent nature of the leave.

New and Improved FMLA Poster

The Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) applies to employers with 50 or more employees in 20 or more work weeks in the current or preceding calendar year. The FMLA requires covered employers to post a General FMLA Notice that explains not only the protections and requirements of the FMLA, but also how employees can file complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging violations of the FMLA. The notice should be displayed in a conspicuous area, and posted regardless of whether any employees are FMLA eligible.  Earlier this year, the DOL released a new version of this notice. Although employers can continue with the existing poster, the new poster presents the required information in a more user friendly manner and its use ensures the most recent required information is posted.

The new poster can be downloaded from:  https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/posters/fmlaen.pdf

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
941-552-2558