Understanding the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

If you’re like most employers, you’re aware that there is a Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but since it’s not something that tends to come up a lot in the day-to-day running of your business, that is where your understanding ends. However, as with all employment law, ignorance offers neither bliss or a free pass from the consequences of getting it wrong.  This month, we’ve highlighted some of the key guidelines for the FMLA to keep you compliant.  If you’re a single small studio owner, it’s unlikely you’ll ever be required to comply with the FMLA.  However, if you own a large club or cluster of clubs or studios, this article will help prepare you to meet these requirements confidently. 

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FMLA refers to the Family and Medical Leave Act, which is a federal law that guarantees certain employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave each year with no threat of job loss. FMLA also requires that employers covered by the law maintain the health benefits for eligible workers just as if they were working.

Covered employers must grant FMLA leave for one or more of the following situations:

  • The employee cannot work because of a serious medical condition.
  • The employee must care for an immediate family member that has a serious medical condition.
  • The birth and/or subsequent care of the employee's child.
  • The placement and/or subsequent care of an adopted or foster care child.
  • A "qualifying exigency" that arises out of the fact that the employee's spouse, child or parent is on active duty or has been called to active duty for the National Guard or Reserve in support of a contingency operation.

Eligibility

Employees are eligible for leave if:

  • They have worked for their employer at least 12 months (the 12 months don’t need to be consecutive but should not be separated by more than 7 years);
  • At least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months;
  • Work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.

Under some circumstances, employees may take FMLA leave on an intermittent or reduced schedule basis. That means an employee may take leave in separate blocks of time or by reducing the time he or she works each day or week for a single qualifying reason. When leave is needed for planned medical treatment, the employee must make a reasonable effort to schedule treatment so as not to unduly disrupt the employer's operations. If FMLA leave is for the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child, use of intermittent or reduced schedule leave requires the employer’s approval.

Under certain conditions, employees may choose, or employers may require employees, to "substitute" (run concurrently) accrued paid leave, such as sick or vacation leave, to cover some or all of the FMLA leave period. An employee’s ability to substitute accrued paid leave is determined by the terms and conditions of the employer's normal leave policy.

Requesting Leave

Employees must comply with their employer’s usual and customary requirements for requesting leave and provide enough information for their employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request. Employees generally must request leave 30 days in advance when the need for leave is foreseeable. When the need for leave is foreseeable less than 30 days in advance or is unforeseeable, employees must provide notice as soon as possible and practicable under the circumstances.

When an employee requests FMLA leave due to his or her own serious health condition or a covered family member’s serious health condition, the employer may require certification in support of the leave from a health care provider. An employer may also require second or third medical opinions (at the employer’s expense) and periodic recertification of a serious health condition.

Employee’s Return to Work

Upon return from FMLA leave, an employee must be restored to his or her original job or to an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. An employee’s use of FMLA leave cannot be counted against the employee under a “no-fault” attendance policy. Employers are also required to continue group health insurance coverage for an employee on FMLA leave under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave.

 Next steps for your business:

  • Develop a sound policy.  Include a written and current policy your handbook and be sure to clarify how the use of paid vacation, sick, or personal time when FMLA is requested.
  • Train manages.  Your management team will be the ones fielding questions regarding FMLA.  They’ll need to understand how to respond to FMLA requests without violating the employees’ rights or the law’s anti-retaliation provision. 
  • Carefully review all requests to prevent fraud and abuse.  Don’t merely accept vague medical information.  If things are unclear, ask for clarification from the medical provider.
  • Give termination decisions a thorough review.  Reasons for termination must be unrelated to illness or a request for FMLA leave, and these reasons must be clearly documented.  Otherwise, you set yourself up for a retaliation or discrimination claim. 
  • Be aware that some states (11 currently) have their own versions of the FMLA:  CA, MN, VT, CT, NJ, WA, HI, OR, WI, ME, RI.  If you operate in any of these states, make sure you research and integrate their specific laws.

As with most legal guidelines, if you have questions or are unsure about anything, get help.  Your lawyer or a certified HR professional can help clear up any doubts.

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