EXCESS FMLA ABSENCES: AN EMPLOYER SUCCESS STORY

Posted On November 13, 2019  

by Marti Cardi, Esq. - Vice President, Product Compliance

November 13, 2019

 

What can an employer do when an employee takes intermittent FMLA leave in excess of the frequency and duration authorized by the health care provider’s certification?  In a good case for employers, one court has explicitly upheld disciplinary measures taken when an employee exceeded her approved absences, resulting in violations of the employer’s attendance policy.  But it was a multi-step process to get there.  Here’s the story:

Tori’s FMLA certification.  Employee Tori Evans worked as an administrative assistant for Cooperative Response Center, Inc., an alarm monitoring service.  After several years of employment (and a pretty dismal attendance record, by the way) she developed reactive arthritis and needed occasional time off for medical treatments and flare-ups.  There is no question in the case that her condition was real.  Tori requested FMLA leave and returned a certification from her health care provider supporting FMLA leave for up to 2 half days per month for medical appointments, and 2 full days per month for flare-ups.  The provider described her symptoms as “GI illness, oral lesions, and joint pains.”  CRC approved Tori’s FMLA leave in accordance with the provider’s certification.

Then what happened?  Tori began reporting absences in excess of her FMLA certification frequency and duration.  CRC’s progressive attendance policy provided for increasing levels of discipline for unexcused absences, culminating in termination for 10 attendance points over a rolling 12-month period.  CRC warned Tori of the possible consequences of absences beyond the approved certification.  Then CRC followed the FMLA recertification process (29 C.F.R. § 825.308), asking her doctor to verify the appropriate frequency and duration based on her condition.  In the section of the new cert form addressing the frequency and duration Tori needed for appointments and flare-ups, the doctor wrote, “Refer to prior FMLA form.” Based on this and other events, CRC assessed 6 points for absences in excess of her FMLA certification; 2 points for requesting FMLA absences for a medical condition not covered by her certification; 1 point for Tori’s failure to follow CRC’s dual absence reporting procedure; and 1.5 points for another absence due to a medical condition not related to her reactive arthritis. 

Total:  10.5 attendance points.  Result:  termination.  Next step:  lawsuit.

What CRC did right.  CRC’s management of Tori’s FMLA leave and her attendance problems was near picture perfect:

  • CRC warned Tori of the consequences of excessive absences (presumably in addition to having its policyin writing and available to employees).
  • When Tori began to exceed the parameters of her certification, CRC went back to her provider, followingthe recert process, and obtained verification that the original frequency and duration were still correct.
  • CRC carefully analyzed Tori’s reported reasons for absence to verify whether they were covered by herFMLA cert. For example, once she reported an absence of 2 days because her “knee gave out,” which wasnot a symptom of her reactive arthritis as stated by her provider in her original certification.  Other timesshe reported she had “lost her voice” and had a fever and was aching everywhere. On these last twooccurrences Tori did not relate them to her approved FMLA, in violation of 29 C.F.R. § 825.303(b)(until her lawsuit, that is):

When an employee seeks leave due to a qualifying reason, for which the employer has previously provided the employee FMLA-protected leave, the employee must specifically reference either the qualifying reason for leave or the need for FMLA leave. Calling in “sick” without providing more information will not be considered sufficient notice to trigger an employer’s obligations under the Act.

  • CRC enforced its dual absence reporting procedure and assessed an attendance point when Tori reportedan absence to her supervisor for work coverage but not to HR for FMLA purposes. The courts havegenerally accepted that an employer may require an employee to report an FMLA-covered absence to2 sources.  (See our prior blog post on this topic here.)

What’s missing?  It is important to remember that the FMLA regulations indicate a provider’s assessment of frequency and duration for an intermittent leave is an estimate only.  See 29 C.F.R. § 825.306(a)(5)-(8) (e.g., the certificate must contain “an estimate of the frequency and duration of the episodes of incapacity”).   The court did not acknowledge the estimate issue in its opinion.  One suspects that the result would be the same, as Tori had 6 absences in excess of her certification approval.  Nonetheless, employers should not jump to attendance discipline on the basis of just 1 or 2 excess absences. 

Remember, too, that this is just one case – and a district court case at that.  As such, it is not binding on any other courts outside of the federal district of Minnesota.  However, the analysis is sound and provides a good roadmap for handling those excess FMLA absences beyond the estimated frequency and duration.

Pings for employers.   As an employer, you can tightly monitor and assess an employee’s specific absences to ensure they are within the scope of an approved FMLA leave and comply with your absence policies:

  • Enforce company and FMLA reporting procedures
  • Watch the frequency and duration of the employee’s absences
  • Seek recertification when an employee’s absences exceed the certification’s frequency and duration
  • Apply consequences for unexcused/non-FMLA absences

But remember to:

  • Be consistent in applying your policies to FMLA and non-FMLA situations
  • Give a little leeway regarding an employee’s absences – the provider’s certification is an estimate only

The case is Evans v. Cooperative Response Center from the federal court for the District of Minnesota.

Thanks to my fellow blogger Jeff Nowak (and his source!) for bringing this case to my attention.  You can read his take on the case here.

MATRIX CAN HELP!  Are your FMLA procedures up to snuff like CRC’s?  Matrix can help you avoid FMLA pitfalls and follow compliant procedures to manage difficult situations.  We provide 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. For leave management and accommodation assistance, contact us through your Matrix or Reliance Standard account manager or at ping@matrixcos.com.

 

ADA ALERT:  THE EEOC IS ALIVE AND KICKING

Posted On October 22, 2019  

by Marti Cardi, Esq. - Vice President, Product Compliance

October 22, 2019

 

And sadly, so are disability and pregnancy discrimination. 

I receive press releases from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission several times each week.  Most of them trumpet new lawsuits filed by the agency or settlements reached with employers it previously sued.  Every year there are some whoppers in terms of settlement dollars. There are also lots of smaller-dollar settlements that don’t make the non-EEOC news banners but have a big impact on the employer nonetheless.

So I got to wondering – how do the numbers stack up with regard to EEOC lawsuits relating to disability and pregnancy discrimination?  I took an unscientific count from the EEOC’s Newsroom  (ticking off the numbers on a piece of scratch paper).  Here’s what I found through October 20 of this year: 

  • The EEOC issued over 250 press releases relating to lawsuits it has filed or settled so far in 2019.
  • 113 (approx 45%) of these were lawsuits alleging disability or pregnancy discrimination and failureto accommodate (93 disability-related, 16 pregnancy-related, and 4 involving both).
  • Settlements ranged from $16,000 to $2,250,000 in damages awarded to the employees.
  • The top of the chart was a $5.2 million jury verdict in an EEOC lawsuit alleging failure toaccommodate a cart pusher at a Walmart store. More on that below!

In addition to press releases throughout the year, the EEOC publishes its official tally of charge and litigation statistics annually, which you can review here.

Who is getting sued by the EEOC, and for what? 

Pretty much everyone, and for everything disability-related. 

  • The employers who are subjects of these press releases include hospitals and other medical providers,staffing agencies, retailers, grocery chains, entertainment and hospitality companies, manufacturers, fastfood franchisees, service providers at correctional institutions, telecommunications and trucking companies,and on and on. (Lesson: Don’t assume your segment is “under the radar.”)  
  • These employers are getting the EEOC’s attention due to hiring practices, improper medical inquiries,failure to accommodate in all shapes and sizes, terminations, more terminations, inflexible leave policies, anddisability harassment. Did I mention terminations?
  • The disabilities at issue include both mental and physical, although the physical disabilities seem to dominatethis year: Hearing impairment, bad backs, Tourette syndrome, cancer, and so on.

Now I have to acknowledge that these are EEOC press releases – the agency selects the new or settled cases they want to publicize.  There are also EEOC lawsuits that get dismissed by the court or are adjudicated in favor of the employer.  Still, there are lessons to be learned from the cases the EEOC wants to share with the employer world. 

The ones that speak to me. 

Of the 113 news releases related to disability and/or pregnancy discrimination, here are a few that I found to be noteworthy: 

  • Changing policy. One resort and spa employer settled a lawsuit based on its refusal to allow apregnant employee to wear open-toed shoes (not a safety issue) and to sit while working at thereception desk.  I ask you, was that worth it?
  • Inflexible leave policies continue to trip up employers – much to my surprise, as this has beenan EEOC focus for years. See our blog post on the topic here.   In 2019 so far, at least 4 employerssettled EEOC disability lawsuits based on the employer’s practice of terminating employees whenthe employees exhausted their FMLA or company medical leave rather than considering ADAaccommodations (extended leave or otherwise).  These 4 settlements range from $175,000to $950,000.
  • Several cases involved failure to accommodate hearing impairments.  Employers need to avoidmaking rash decisions based on stereotypes about the hearing-impaired (rememberthe Case of the Deaf Lifeguard?) or any other disability, for that matter. Rather, consider thehearing impaired individual’s capabilities and if necessary, discuss special instructional, training,or communication methods as a reasonable accommodation.
  • Ending an existing accommodation. Finally, we must look at that $5.2 million jury verdict againstWalmart.  This case involved a cart pusher, Paul Reina, whose job consisted primarily of clearingthe parking lot of shopping carts.  Reina is deaf and has developmental, visual, and intellectualimpairments.  Reina had worked for Walmart in this capacity from 1998 to 2015, always with theassistance of a job coach arranged by Reina’s family and paid for through a Medicaid program.In 2015 a new manager was assigned to the store where Reina worked.  A few days later Reinawas put on administrative leave and never allowed to return to work.  To be fair, Walmart gaveseveral reasons it felt Reina should no longer work as a cart pusher, including the argument thatit was actually the job coach, not Reina, who was performing the job duties.  Nonetheless,Walmart discarded an accommodation that had been in place for 17 years. The jury found thatthis violated the ADA and awarded Reina $200,000 in actual damages and $5 million inpunitive damages.

The consequences beyond dollars. 

An EEOC lawsuit imposes a substantial financial burden even if the employer wins the case, such as the costs of attorneys’ fees, document production, depositions, and other defense tasks. But there are also significant consequences beyond just the monetary issues. Consider also the time spent by your employees, management, and Human Resources personnel to prepare for and defend the lawsuit and the ensuing disruption of your business operations.

In addition, when the EEOC settles a case, it demands other non-monetary relief such as years of oversight by the agency, hiring an ADA consultant, revising ADA policies, posting notice of the settlement in the workplace, and agency-mandated layers of training for employees and management.

Pings for Employers. 

What should you do so that your company doesn’t appear in the EEOC’s 2020 press releases? How about:

  • Train your employees on the ADA and accommodations – why wait for the EEOC or acourt to tell you to do it? If training heads off even one ADA misstep and EEOC lawsuit,it will have paid for itself.
  • Review your leave policies to ensure they don’t violate the ADA by imposing an inflexiblelimit to leave durations or requiring employees to be 100% healed before returning to work.
  • Take the interactive process to heart. Don’t make employment decisions based on yourbelief or a stereotype of what someone with a disability can or can’t do – discuss it withthe employee and, if appropriate, get relevant medical support.
  • Be ready to change nonessential company rules and procedures as an accommodation.Arguments like “we’ve always done it that way” or “then everyone will want the same”just don’t win the day.
  • Use available resources to help you understand an employee’s impairment and capabilities.The Job Accommodation Network  has a multitude of articles on various impairments andpossible accommodations, and the staff is available for discussion by telephone.  
  • Consider other resources specific to the employee’s disability. There are multiple websitesfor virtually every type of impairment that will help educate you about the employee’ssituation.  But remember – again – to avoid those stereotypes and make your determinationson the basis of the employee’s specific capabilities and limitations.

 

MATRIX CAN HELP! Matrix’s ADA Advantage® leave management system and our dedicated ADA accommodation specialists help employers maneuver through the accommodation process – including spotting noncompliant leave policies during implementation of our servicesWe will initiate an ADA claim for your employee; conduct the medical intake and analysis if needed; manage the interactive process; assist in identifying reasonable accommodations; document the process; and more.  For assistance please contact your Matrix or Reliance Standard account manager or send an email to ping@matrixcos.com.

THE ESSENCE OF PARENTAL LEAVES – TREATING FATHERS DIFFERENTLY COSTS ESTÉE LAUDER $1.1 MILLION AND MUCH MORE

Posted On July 26, 2018  

by Marti Cardi, Esq. - Vice President, Product Compliance

& Gail Cohen, Esq. - Director, Employment Law And Compliance

July 26, 2018

 

Perfume and cosmetics giant Estée Lauder has agreed to pay $1.1 million to a class of male employees who received less bonding leave and less return to work job flexibility than their female counterparts.  Under its prior policy, men received just 2 weeks of parental leave to bond with a new child.  Women received 6 weeks after their medical leave ended and flexible return-to-work benefits upon expiration of child bonding leave, such as temporary modified work schedules, to ease the transition back to work.

The EEOC filed suit against Estée Lauder in August 2017.  On July 17, 2018, the court entered a consent decree resolving the case. In addition to the $1.1 million payment to the class of male employees, the consent decree imposes other requirements on Estée Lauder. The company must:

  • Administer parental leave and related return-to-work benefits in a manner that ensures equal benefits
    for male and female employees
  • Provide training on unlawful sex discrimination
  • Allow monitoring by the EEOC

Estée Lauder met the requirement of equal benefits during the course of the lawsuit when it voluntarily (with the EEOC watching over its shoulder) implemented a revised parental leave policy that provides all eligible employees, regardless of gender or care­giver status, the same 20 weeks of paid leave for child bonding and the same 6-week flexibility period upon returning to work. For birth mothers, these paid parental leave benefits begin after any period of medical leave occasioned by childbirth.

These are common terms imposed by the EEOC when it sues an employer and obtains a consent decree – a judgment agreed to by the employer to resolve the EEOC’s lawsuit.  Other common terms include:

  • Posting the consent decree on employee bulletin boards;
  • Hiring a nondiscrimination consultant; and
  • Reporting to the EEOC on all complaints received by the employer for a number of years. 

As you can see, the payment by the employer pursuant to a consent decree is often just the tip of the iceberg in terms of total amount of internal costs, management time, and distraction caused by an EEOC investigation and lawsuit.

Observation:  Many employers attract the EEOC’s attention by discriminating against pregnant employees and mothers – termination, forced leave, failure to promote, etc.  Ironically, this lawsuit arises from an employer treating pregnant employees more favorably than men.  I’m sure Estée Lauder is feeling the adage, no good deed goes unpunished!

Pings for Employers

  • Check your policies. Leaves related to having a new child fall into 2 categories:  medical leave for
    the birth mother, and bonding leave for all parents.
  • Any leave provided only to the birth mother must relate to her medical condition. Common “disability”
    leave after birth is 6 weeks for a vaginal birth, 8 weeks for a C-section.  If your plan noticeably exceeds
    these numbers you are at risk of a challenge that the leave is not related to the birth mother’s health condition
    and is discriminatory against non-birth parents.
  • Leave for bonding must be equal for all parents – birth mothers and non-birth parents (fathers and second
    mothers). Same for other new-child related benefits, such as the flexible return to work options offered
    by Estée Lauder.
  • To be competitive, parental/bonding leave should also be available to adoptive and foster parents. Some state
    laws require this.
  • To see what other employers are offering as voluntary paid maternity, parental, and caregiver leave benefits,
    check out this resource from the National Partnership for Women and Families:
    Leading on Leave: Companies With New or Expanded Paid Leave Policies (2015-2018).
  • For more detailed guidance – at least from the EEOC’s perspective – you can review their
    Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues.

Matrix Can Help.  Matrix offers comprehensive leave management services, including administration of company leave policies such as maternity and parental leaves (paid and unpaid).  For more information contact your account manager or your sales representative, or send an email to ping@matrixcos.com.