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May 20, 2021 | Time and Attendance | Posted by Ascentis Thought Leadership

Managing Employee FMLA Leave: 4 Real-World Scenarios

If you’re an HR professional, the odds are that you’re already very familiar with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) words, the FMLA was designed to allow “eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave.”

While that seems like a simple enough concept, the reality is often a little more complicated. Knowing how exactly FMLA rules apply to real-world work situations involves some closer attention to the nuances and realities of your workplace. Case in point, some of the terms laid out in the quote above probably need some further definition.

  • According to the DOL, “covered employers” include:
    • Private sector companies that employ 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks per calendar year.
    • Federal and state government organizations and associated agencies, including public schools.
    • Joint employers and integrated employers that share responsibilities for managing a business or its recruitment and hiring practices.
  • Eligible employees” are those who have worked for a covered employer, in a location where at least 50 workers are employed, for at least 12 months and have logged at least 1,250 hours in that period.
  • Job-protected leave” means that an employer must allow an employee to return from leave to the same job they had before, or one that is nearly identical in terms of duties, skill requirements, location, pay, and benefits.

We’ve put together several illustrations of common leave management challenges that illustrate the complexities of FMLA compliance.

Can an employee take intermittent FMLA leave?

The question:

Rosa is an equipment operator at your manufacturing facility. She was recently injured in a traffic accident and requires weekly physical therapy appointments for rehabilitation. Since she is still able to perform her usual work functions, she does not want to take an extended leave of absence, but does wish to use FMLA time for her therapy sessions. Can she take leave in several-hour increments over the course of her treatment?

The answer:

Yes, FMLA guidelines say that workers can take leave portioned out in smaller blocks of time for physical therapy, chemotherapy, mental health appointments, and other forms of ongoing treatment. Intermittent leave can also apply to chronic conditions such as migraine headaches or Crohn’s disease, short-term conditions such as morning sickness from pregnancy, and recurring medical appointments. Rosa simply needs to fill out a leave request form, complete with a referral from a medical professional, as well as all time sheets required by the FMLA and state and local regulations.

Can an employer request more information from a medical professional?

The question:

Nursing assistant Darrel has put in a leave request to address a medical condition, but the physician’s note he’s provided is vague about what treatment he’s actually receiving. Is it acceptable for his employer to ask for more specifics before approving his leave request?

The answer:

Maybe, but be careful. This is a tricky area, because medical privacy is a serious concern. If an employer feels that a leave request doesn’t include enough information for approval, the first approach should be to have an HR representative ask the employee directly for more clarity. If that does not resolve the concern, FMLA guidelines do allow an employer to contact a medical professional, but only under specific conditions. According to the Department of Labor, “to make such contact, the employer must use a health care provider, a human resources professional, a leave administrator, or a management official. Under no circumstances, however, may the employee's direct supervisor contact the employee's health care provider.” DOL rules also specify that, while an employer can request clarifications, they are not allowed to ask for any medical information beyond what was originally provided.

Can an employee be terminated while on FMLA leave?

The question:

While plant supervisor Alan is on FMLA leave after being diagnosed with a chronic medical condition, the contingent worker brought on as his temporary replacement discovers evidence that Alan has been falsifying timesheets for several employees with whom he’s friendly. This is an offense that would ordinarily be cause for immediate termination, but is the employer allowed to dismiss an employee who is actively on leave?

The answer:

Yes, FMLA leave does not affect the circumstances of a fireable offense. It is important, however, for the employer to conduct a thorough investigation that provides ample evidence of the misconduct. In this situation, Alan might conceivably claim that his firing was actually punishment for taking an extended leave, which could open the employer up to a costly legal dispute. It is crucial to make it clear that Alan’s termination is unrelated to his medical condition or leave request.

Can a military spouse request a longer FMLA leave period?

The question:

Assembly line worker Caroline is married to a National Guard member stationed overseas. After her wife is seriously wounded in the line of duty, Caroline requests five months off to assist with her rehabilitation. Given that standard FMLA requests are limited to 12 weeks of leave, can Caroline’s leave request be honored?

The answer:

Yes, the FMLA includes special considerations for military servicemembers and their families. Employees who are members or veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces can request up to 26 weeks of job-protected leave to recover from injuries and illnesses. Military spouses and immediate family members can request the same amount of leave to act as a caregiver for a veteran or serviceperson. Military leave still requires all of the same forms and certifications as any other FMLA leave request.

These are just a few of the many leave scenarios covered by the FMLA. As with any regulations dealing with illness or injury, handling FMLA leave requires a combination of consistency, empathy, and awareness. An automated workforce management system including customizable leave management software can take much of the guesswork out of dealing with FMLA requests, keeping your business operating smoothly while maintaining compliance. Find out more about the ways Ascentis WFM solutions can assist with leave management and other crucial workplace functions.

With more than 35 years of experience in providing Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions, Ascentis thought leaders have become a respected source for insights, tips, and innovations in the Human Capital Management (HCM) space.