DOL to Employers: If it’s FMLA, it’s FMLA. If it’s not, it’s not.

Posted on: March 18, 2019 0

By Marti Cardi, Vice President Product Compliance Gail Cohen, Director Employment Law & Compliance

March 18, 2019

 

There is joy in my blessed li’l FMLA heart.  The US Department of Labor has issued a much-needed Opinion Letter addressing whether an employer or employee can elect not to apply the FMLA to a leave for an FMLA-qualifying event.  Spoiler alert:  The answer is NO.

This has never seemed like a gray area to me.  We blogged about this over 3 years ago.  (See prior blog posts here  and here.) As I said back then, “No, no, no!  The employee does NOT get to choose!”  The regulations are clear, and the DOL FMLA Branch Chief has spoken publicly on this issue. Yet many employers still think employees have the right to choose whether to use FMLA for a qualifying absence.

In the new Opinion Letter FMLA2019-1-A, the DOL addressed this specific question:  Can an employer delay application of FMLA to a leave that is clearly FMLA-qualifying and allow the employee to first use paid sick leave or other leave?

But the DOL went further. As stated in the Opinion Letter:

  • Once an eligible employee communicates a need to take leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason,
    neither the employee nor the employer may decline FMLA protection for that leave.
  • Accordingly, when an employer determines that leave is for an FMLA-qualifying reason, the qualifying
    leave is FMLA-protected and counts toward the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement.
  • Once the employer has enough information to make this determination, the employer must,
    absent extenuating circumstances, provide notice of the designation within five business days.
  • And so, the employer may not delay designating the leave as FMLA-qualifying even if the
    employee would prefer that the employer delay the designation.

When does this arise? Take a look at my friend Jeff Nowak’s blog FMLA Insights for a humorous example (and some additional guidance).  Here is another scenario. Your employee announces she is pregnant.  She also tells you that her husband needs surgery and she wants to take a week off to care for him during the operation and recovery.  But, she doesn’t want to use her FMLA time for that, preferring to reserve it for bonding following the birth of the child.  She’ll use her accrued sick leave and PTO instead:

EMPLOYEE: I am pregnant and want to take FMLA for bonding time after my baby is born.  I also need a week off to care for my husband following his surgery next month.  I want to use my sick leave for the time to care for my husband and save all of my FMLA for bonding.   Remember, care of my husband is an allowed use for sick leave under our policy.

YOU (the employer):  OK.

YOU (6 weeks later): Hey, you said you only needed a week off and you’ve been gone 2 weeks.  You are out of sick leave and PTO.  You’re fired.

EMPLOYEE: But you can’t fire me! My husband needed more time for recovery and care.  The time off was for an FMLA reason and I have job protection.

YOU: You said you didn’t want to use FMLA.

EMPLOYEE: Yes, but I wouldn’t have chosen that if I had known I wouldn’t have job protection during my leave!

What a mess.  I wonder who wins in front of a jury?

It’s OK to allow employees more time through company policies.  The Opinion Letter makes clear that an employer cannot designate time as FMLA in excess of the 12 (or 26) weeks, whether before OR after FMLA leave. If you want to be more generous, provide it through a company policy but don’t call it FMLA.  In fact, the FMLA regulations state that “[a]n employer must observe any employment benefit program or plan that provides greater family or medical leave rights to employees than the rights established by the FMLA.”  29 C.F.R § 825.700.

But what about “substitution?”  Sometimes there is confusion due to the provision in the FMLA regulations that an employee may “substitute” other leave for FMLA leave.  But the regulations – and now the Opinion Letter – make it clear that paid leave provided by the employer will run concurrently with the unpaid FMLA leave.  29 C.F.R § 825.207(a).  As the DOL says in the Opinion Letter:

[P]roviding such additional leave outside the FMLA cannot expand the FMLA’s 12-week (or 26-week) entitlement under the FMLA. . . . Therefore, 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.

So here’s the deal, in my words:

  • The FMLA is a law that provides 12 (or 26) weeks of job-protected leave of absence for 5 qualifying leave
    reasons (key word: law).
  • Neither the employer nor the employee can change the law or choose not to follow it.
  • It’s the law.

Pings for Employers

  • Don’t allow an employee to decline FMLA coverage and protections for a leave you know, or have reason
    to believe, is for an FMLA-qualifying event.
  • Always provide the employee with the FMLA Notice of Rights and Responsibilities and Eligibility Notice
    within 5 days of the employee’s leave request. If you are not clear whether the leave is requested for an FMLA
    reason, be safe and provide the employee with the notices and the certification form.
    Failure to do so
    could be considered interference with the employee’s FMLA rights.
  • Don’t chafe about this rule if it is news to you: It’s actually to your benefit!  The rule gives you, the employer,
    some control over how much time your employees can take off and when. You get to choose whether and
    under what circumstances employees can take more company leave following FMLA leave by designing your
    policies accordingly
    .
  • If you live in states covered by the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, you may already be aware of the
    opinion in Escriba v. Foster Poultry Farms, Inc., 743 F.3d 1236 (9th Cir. 2014). In that case the court held that
    an employee may use non-FMLA leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason and decline to use FMLA leave in order
    to preserve FMLA leave for future use.  A few lower courts in other states have followed the Escriba decision.
    In the Opinion Letter the DOL explicitly rejects the Ninth Circuit’s holding.  This causes a conundrum for
    employers within those states – whether to follow the court’s ruling or the FMLA regulations and now this
    Opinion Letter.

I strongly support the DOL’s interpretation as the only logical result from the FMLA statute and regulations, and have always maintained that the Escriba decision is flat out wrong. (But then, they didn’t ask me!) For more discussion see our prior blog posts linked above. But, you should check with your own employment counsel for advice regarding the specific fact situation you are dealing with.

 

Matrix can help!  At Matrix Absence Management, we administer FMLA, state leaves, the ADA, and related company policies for employers every day, day in and day out.  If you would like more information contact us at ping@matrix.com or through your Account Manager.

Spice up your compliance with 50 Shades of FMLA!

Posted on: March 4, 2019 0

Are you struggling to manage FMLA gray areas such as intermittent leave or suspicious leave requests from employees?

The 2019 DMEC FMLA/ADA Employer Compliance Conference, May 6-9, in Portland, OR, is the place to find answers and solutions that help you minimize risk in your organization and ensure you’re on the path towards ongoing compliance.

Our very own Marti Cardi, together with Jeff Nowak, will help you “color in” those gray areas of FMLA compliance. Read their recent blog post to get a peek under the covers of their general session, 50 Shades of FMLA: Dealing with Those Gray Areas.

This session is just one of many that will prepare you to confidently tackle your organization’s FMLA/ADA challenges. Check out the list of sessions and speakers online.

Early registration ends on Mar. 7. Don’t miss the chance to save $200! Secure your spot today.

 

 

STATE LEAVE LAW UPDATES – WHAT’S HAPPENING IN YOUR NECK OF THE WOODS?

Posted on: October 22, 2018 0

California – New leave reason under paid family leave

California’s paid family leave law (CA PFL) provides up to 6 weeks of paid (but not job protected) leave of absence for family reasons. Current bases for which an employee can receive paid benefits include caring for a family member with a serious health condition and bonding with a new child.  Recently the California legislature passed, and the Governor signed, a bill adding military exigencies as a leave reason for which an employee can receive paid leave.  The events for which military exigency leave can be taken are the same as under FMLA, when the need is related to the military member’s active duty or call to active duty: 

  • Matters related to short-notice deployment
  • Military events and related activities
  • Childcare and school activities
  • Financial and legal arrangements
  • Counseling (other than from a health care provider)
  • Rest and recuperation
  • Post-deployment activities
  • Care for the parent of the military member
  • Additional activities agreed to by the employer and employee

The new law will be effective January 1, 2021; not clear why the big delay! The law does not expand the total paid leave time available to employees under CA PFL, nor does it provide job protection for this leave. Eligible employees will continue to have job-protected military exigency leave for up to 12 weeks under FMLA, which will run concurrently if the leave is taken for a reason covered by both laws.  However, military exigency leave is not provided by the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).

 

Pennsylvania – Expanding FMLA-like leave rights to care for more family members

The Pennsylvania legislature has revived a bill first introduced in 2017 that, if enacted, would provide FMLA-like leave based on additional family relationships and leave reasons.  Senate Bill 479  seeks to add siblings, grandparents, and grandchildren as family members for whom an employee can take job-protected leave, but only in very limited circumstances. The state bill incorporates some of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act’s provisions, such as employee eligibility rules and the definitions of employee and employer.

The additional family relationships for which leave would be provided are:

  • Grandparent: a biological or adoptive grandfather or grandmother or step-grandfather or step-grandmother
  • Grandchild: a biological or adoptive grandson or granddaughter or step-grandson or step-granddaughter
  • Sibling: a biological or adoptive brother or sister or stepbrother or stepsister

But, leave can be taken for these family members ONLY if the grandparent, grandchild, or sibling:

  • Has a certified terminal illness AND
  • Does not have a living spouse, child over 17 years of age or parent under 65 years of age

The bill, if passed, will provide 6 weeks of leave in a 12-month period that must be taken in minimum increments of one week. The leave will not run concurrently with FMLA because the new family relationships are not covered by FMLA. Conversely, however, FMLA leave taken will reduce an employee’s leave entitlement under the state statute.  How that provision will work is not entirely clear, but presumably the state is trying to provide leave for additional reasons without increasing an employee’s total leave entitlement in a 12-month period to more than the 12 weeks provided by the FMLA.

The bill also contains employee notice and certification provisions.

 

New York – Lingering attempts to expand leave reasons under the Paid Family Leave Act

New York’s Paid Family Leave Act (NY PFL), which went into effect on January 1, 2018, currently provides paid leave for bonding, caring for a family member with a serious health condition, and military exigencies related to a family member’s active duty deployment.  Benefits in 2018 are 8 weeks of leave paid at 50% of the employee’s average weekly wage (subject to a cap).  Those will increase to 10 weeks at 55% in 2019.  We provided a summary of the changes in this prior post.  For a refresher on NY PFL and other recent developments, check out our earlier posts on this blog by searching “New York.”  For more information, the official state website is here.

Several bills are currently pending in the New York legislative process for possible expansion of available leave reasons.  Here is a summary of the most pertinent.

Bereavement.   New York Senate Bill 8380A has passed both houses of the New York legislature and is awaiting (since June!) the governor’s signature or veto.  If passed, the bill adds bereavement due to the death of a family member as a leave reason for NY PFL.  Opponents of the bill point out that there is no time limit on usage of bereavement leave in relation to the date of the family member’s death, no limit on how much time can be used, and no limit on usage increments – so the employee can use bereavement leave in one-day increments as with other leaves under NY PFL.

Organ & tissue donation.  New York Senate Bill 2496 is also awaiting the governor’s signature. If signed, this bill will amend NY PFL to add “transplantation preparation and recovery from surgery related to organ or tissue donation” to the definition of serious health condition.  The bill does not make any additional changes to the NY PFL, but it does include a prohibition against discrimination in the provision of life, accident, health, and long term care insurance based on the status of an insured as a living organ or tissue donor.

Domestic violence.  Also pending, but farther back in the legislative process, is Senate Bill No 7723 that would add matters related to domestic violence as reasons for which an employee can take NY PFL.  Types of activities covered include getting medical attention, attending counseling sessions, seeking legal assistance, attendance in court proceedings, communicating with an attorney, relocating to a permanent or temporary residence.  The bill limits the amount of paid leave available for these reasons to 2 weeks, plus an additional 2 weeks of unpaid leave.  This bill has not made any headway in the legislature since early this year, but is still alive.  We previously provided details about this problematic bill here.

Matrix Can Help!

At Matrix we monitor state and federal legislative developments daily and report on any new or advancing leave- and accommodation-related laws to keep our clients and other business partners up to date.  If you ever have questions about leave and accommodation laws – current or just introduced! – please contact your account manager or send an email to ping@matrixcos.com.

DOL issues New “Safe Harbor” FMLA Certifications

Posted on: September 5, 2018 0

BY MARTI CARDI, VP-PRODUCT COMPLIANCE & GAIL COHEN, DIRECTOR-EMPLOYMENT LAW/COMPLIANCE

The Department of Labor recently issued updated versions of certifications employers can use when employees ask for FMLA leave. The new certifications are in effect until August 31, 2021. However, only the expiration date has changed.

The older forms with an expired date are still fully compliant with the FMLA but do tend to cause questions. Remember, these are just “safe harbor” forms; they are not mandatory. As many of our readers and employer clients have experienced firsthand, the DOL certification forms do not always provide employers with a “complete and sufficient certification.”

As a result, Matrix has developed its own certifications for employee’s own serious health condition and for a family member’s serious health condition that we use for managing our clients’ FMLA claims. These customized forms have resulted in fewer incomplete or unclear certifications, leading in turn to more expedient and efficient adjudication of FMLA entitlement. Matrix will be using the DOL certifications with the new expiration dates for military exigencies and for care of an ill or injured servicemember or veteran.

The new DOL forms are available here.

MATRIX CAN HELP!

Matrix provides leave, disability, and accommodation management services to employers seeking a comprehensive and compliant solution to these complex employer obligations. We monitor the many leave laws being passed around the country and specialize in understanding how they work together.

If you have questions, contact your Account Manager or ping@matrixcos.com.

New DOL FMLA Opinion Letters – Organ Donation and No-Fault Attendance Policies

Posted on: August 31, 2018 0

BY MARTI CARDI, VP-PRODUCT COMPLIANCE & GAIL COHEN, DIRECTOR-EMPLOYMENT LAW/COMPLIANCE

Occasionally the U.S. Department of Labor issues opinion letters as a means of providing interpretive guidance on the FMLA. An opinion letter is an official, written opinion by the Wage and Hour Division of how a particular law applies in specific circumstances presented by an employer, employee, or other entity requesting the opinion. Thus, it provides an official, reliable interpretation of the FMLA and its regulations.

We may not always agree with the Division’s opinion, but at least we know where the agency stands!

On August 28, the DOL issued two new FMLA opinion letters:

Is incapacity due to organ donation covered by FMLA?

Opinion Letter FMLA2018-2-A offers guidance on whether time missed due to an organ donation is covered by the FMLA. Specifically, can an otherwise healthy employee, who does not himself suffer from a serious health condition, take FMLA to undergo organ donation surgery, recover from surgery, and receive other postoperative treatment?

The DOL concluded that the answer is “yes.”

As our readers know, for an eligible employee to take FMLA for his own condition he must have a serious health condition. This term generally indicates that the employee has an “illness, injury or mental or physical impairment” that requires “inpatient care” or “continuing treatment” and that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of his job  The DOL reasoned that the treatment itself the employee must undergo in connection with an organ donation renders the time associated with doing so a qualifying serious health condition. The surgery to donate an organ typically involves a stay in a hospital for one or more nights, which qualifies as “inpatient care.” Once the definition of a serious health condition is met, other periods of incapacity related to the serious health condition, such as recovery and postoperative treatments, will also be FMLA-protected absences.

Although not directly stated, the implication is that it doesn’t matter if the serious health condition arises from a voluntary situation – in this case, donating an organ to someone else. If the employee’s health situation meets one of the definitions of a serious health condition, absences are covered by the FMLA.

This is certainly an elaboration on the common understanding that, in general, the employee has to have an existing condition that necessitates time away from work for treatment. With this opinion letter, the DOL makes it clear that even if there is no existing serious health condition, elective treatment that creates a serious health condition can support FMLA leave and job protection. Another example where this might apply is infertility treatment. The condition of infertility is not an incapacitating condition but the treatment may incapacitate the employee and therefore provide FMLA protections.

PINGS FOR EMPLOYERS:

  • Always analyze whether an employee has a serious health condition in accordance with the definitions
    in the regulations. Even those conditions that the DOL notes will not typically be a serious health condition
    (the common cold, the flu, etc.) might qualify if the employee’s condition, incapacity, and/or treatments meet
    one of the definitions.
  • Don’t be influenced by whether the employee’s serious health condition is brought on by voluntary treatment
    for the benefit of the employee such as cosmetic treatments or for the benefit of others such as organ or
    bone marrow donation.
  • Judge each situation on its particular facts; don’t make assumptions based on the nature of the
    employee’s condition.
  • Remember that some states have laws that protect employees who need leave to donate an organ,
    bone marrow, and other human tissue. You can refresh yourself on these laws with our prior blog post here.

No-Fault Attendance Policies Done Right!

The DOL’s other August 28 opinion letter (FMLA2018-1-A) relates to an employer favorite – no-fault attendance policies. These are polices where an employee’s absence, no matter what the cause, is counted against the employer’s attendance point system. Once an employee accrues a pre-set number of absences, she is subject to discharge per employer policy. Points usually roll off the employee’s record after a certain period of time, such as 12 months after the absence. The catch is that absences attributable to FMLA leave cannot be counted toward an employer’s attendance policy.

An employer posed this question to the DOL: Does an employer’s no-fault policy violate the FMLA if it is put on hold during FMLA leave and the employee returns to work with the same number of attendance points as he had accrued prior to the start of leave? The DOL says no, as long as the policy is applied in a nondiscriminatory (read: consistent) manner.

Under this employer’s policy, attendance points remain on an employee’s record for 12 months. But, if the employee goes on FMLA leave, the employee’s accrued points at the beginning of the leave remain and do not roll off during the leave.

The DOL recognized that the FMLA does not entitle an employee to superior benefits or position simply because he or she took FMLA leave. (e.g., 29 C.F.R. § 825.214.) Removal of absenteeism points is a reward for working and therefore an employment benefit under the FMLA. If the number of accrued points remains effectively frozen during FMLA leave under the employer’s attendance policy, an employee does not lose a benefit that accrued prior to taking the leave. According to the new opinion letter, the DOL’s longstanding position is that such practices do not violate the FMLA, as long as employees on equivalent types of leave receive the same treatment.

On the other hand, if the employer counts equivalent types of leave as “active service” under the no-fault attendance policy—meaning the employer counts such leave toward the twelve months necessary to remove points—then the employer may be unlawfully discriminating against employees who take FMLA leave.

PINGS FOR EMPLOYERS:

  • Review your “no-fault” attendance policy to ensure that it does not penalize employees for absences
    attributable to FMLA reasons.
  • Treat any policy regarding “freezing” of attendance points accrual or roll-off the same for FMLA absences
    as for any other types of absences (for example, absences attributable to a workers’ comp injury or pursuant
    to a personal leave policy).

For more background on DOL opinion letters, you can review our prior blog post.

MATRIX CAN HELP!

Matrix provides leave, disability, and accommodation management services to employers seeking a comprehensive and compliant solution to these complex employer obligations. We monitor the many leave laws being passed around the country and specialize in understanding how they work together.

If you have questions, contact your Account Manager or ping@matrixcos.com.