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When Employee’s Trip to the Beach May NOT Support A Suspicion of FMLA Fraud

Employers are not obligated to tolerate employee misuse of FMLA leave.  Examples abound in which an employer learns – often through an employee’s social media posts or through information from an employee’s co-workers – that an employee on intermittent FMLA leave has been having a good time while absent from work, such as taking a trip to the beach (or Las Vegas, Cancun, ….), playing golf, going fishing, etc.  In those situations, when an employer takes action to discipline or terminate the employee after conducting a reasonable investigation and reaching an honest belief of FMLA fraud, the employer will often successfully defeat a resulting FMLA retaliation claim (and, often an FMLA interference claim as well).

The case of Meyer v. Town of Wake Forest, No. 5:16-CV-348-FL, 2018 WL 4689447 (E.D. N.C. Sept. 28, 2018), however, provides an example of when an employee going to the beach during FMLA leave may not provide good grounds for an “honest belief” of FMLA fraud.  In Meyer, the employee was approved for intermittent FMLA leave both to care for his wife who was recovering from childbirth and to bond with his newborn son.  A co-worker reported to the employer that, while on approved FMLA leave, the employee had been to the beach with his family, and that he also planned to go with them to the state fair.  Based on the employee’s subsequent admission that he had engaged in these activities and that he had recorded his time as sick time under the employer’s

DOL: Employers May Not Delay FMLA Designation, Even at Employee’s Request

It is not uncommon for employees to ask whether they can first use paid time off available under the employer’s leave policies and “save” their unpaid – and protected – Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave entitlement until later, in the event that they need additional leave.  Some employers permit this approach, perhaps out of a desire to be “generous” to employees with respect to leave, or sometimes inadvertently due to not realizing that paid leave and unpaid FMLA leave can run concurrently, or even because of a failure to recognize at the beginning of an employee’s leave that the FMLA applies.

In an opinion letter issued on March 14, 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) took a firm stand against this practice, stating unequivocally that “the employer may not delay designating leave as FMLA-qualifying, even if the employee would prefer that the employer delay the designation.”  See FMLA2019-1-A.

In reaching this conclusion, the DOL relied heavily on the FMLA regulation precluding the waiver of FMLA rights, see 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(d), stating that, in light of the prohibition on such waivers, neither the employee nor the employer “may decline FMLA protection” for FMLA-qualifying leave.  The DOL also noted that delaying FMLA leave until after paid leave is exhausted would run afoul of the regulation that requires employers to provide the FMLA designation notice within five business days of having sufficient information to determine that leave is for an FMLA-qualifying reason.  See 29 C.F.R. § 825.300(d)(1).

Although

Practical Tips to Address Implicit Bias in the Workplace

Over the past half century, employers have made great strides in protecting employees and applicants from conscious bias on the basis of race, gender, age and other protected characteristics.  But what about unconscious – or “implicit” – bias?

What is “Implicit Bias”?

Implicit bias refers to “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.”  See http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/ .

Each of us has implicit biases, formed based on our experiences and exposures from a variety of sources over time.

What are the Implications of Implicit Bias for the Workplace?

By their nature, implicit biases may cause decision-makers to unconsciously form opinions – and make employment decisions – about applicants and employees in a manner that has a negative effect based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, and age.

Some studies have shown, for example, that when reviewers were given copies of a memorandum with identical errors, but some reviewers were told the writer was African-American and others were told the writer was Caucasian, the average score on a scale from 1 to 5 was nearly a point higher for the Caucasian writer, and the Caucasian writer was described as having “potential” while the African American writer was called “sloppy.”  See http://nextions.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/written-in-black-and-white-yellow-paper-series.pdf.

What can Employers do about Implicit Bias?

Unfortunately, implicit biases operate at a subconscious level.  As a result, our implicit biases may run counter to what we consciously believe.  This can make it difficult for decision-makers to realize that their decisions

Does An Employer Have FMLA Obligations Even Before An Employee Satisfies the Eligibility Requirements For Taking FMLA Leave?

November 26, 2018

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In a word: Yes.  In fact, there are many.

The most notable obligation under the Family and Medical Leave Act – the obligation to provide protected leave for a qualifying reason – does not apply until the employee has become eligible for leave under the Act.  However, many other obligations apply even before an employee becomes FMLA-eligible:

  • Employers may not manipulate the size of a worksite or the number of work hours available to an employee in order to avoid employee eligibility for FMLA leave.
  • Employers may not induce an employee to waive prospective rights under the FMLA, such as inducing a pre-eligible employee to waive the right to take leave once the employee becomes eligible in exchange for some other employer-provided benefit.
  • Employers must not retaliate against an employee who, before becoming eligible for FMLA leave, requests leave that will begin after eligibility is achieved. See Pereda v. Brookdale Senior Living Communities, Inc., 666 F.3d 1269 (11th Jan. 10, 2012) (holding that the FMLA prohibits an employer from harassing, criticizing the performance of, and terminating an employee in response to a pre-eligibility request for post-eligibility leave, because to hold otherwise would create “a loophole . . . whereby an employer has total freedom to terminate an employee before she can ever become eligible.  Such a situation is contrary to the basic concept of the FMLA”).
  • Employers must give accurate information to an employee about whether the employee is eligible for leave. When an employee is given inaccurate information

Tips for Handbook Review

November 5, 2018

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Tips for Handbook Review

November 5, 2018

Authored by: Christy Phanthavong

It’s that time of year when human resources departments turn their attention to reviewing and updating their employee handbooks for the upcoming year.  Below are some things to consider when updating your handbook:

  • Updates to federal laws – Have any applicable federal laws or regulations been changed, or any court or agency opinions issued that impact your policies?
  • Updates to state or local laws – Similarly, have any applicable state laws or regulations been changed?
  • State law addenda – Does a “one-size fits all” handbook work for your company, or does your company footprint require state law addenda? Has your company recently expanded into new locations?
  • Keeping up with the times – Unfortunately, policies relating to safety, security, emergency plans, emergency contact information, etc. are becoming increasingly necessary and important.
  • Introduction – Does your statement describing your company, its history and philosophy, etc. need refreshing or updating?
  • Policies v. Practices – Is your handbook keeping up with your actual practices?
  • Cross-references – Are there new and separate company policies (e.g., Code of Conduct; global policies) that should be cross-referenced in the handbook?
  • Consistency with separate policies – Do you have separate policies (such as a stand-alone reaffirmation of a policy against harassment, or local facility policies that are separate from a corporate handbook) that are similar or related to policies in the handbook, and if so, is the language consistent?
  • Phone numbers, names, titles, third party administrators – If specific information regarding these and similar subjects is provided in

On or Off? What to Do with Email When the Employee Is on FMLA Leave.

September 21, 2018

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When an employee goes out on continuous (not intermittent) leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (or analogous state law), the employer must decide whether to turn off the employee’s email access during the leave.  If the employer has a standard practice that applies to other comparable leaves of absence, then the employer should follow that practice for FMLA leave as well.  But if the employer has no existing practice, what practice should it adopt?

On the one hand, employees should not be expected to work while they are on FMLA leave and, generally, should not work.  Turning off the email access demonstrates the employer’s seriousness about compliance with this principle, precludes a one-off supervisor ignoring this principle and asking the employee to do something, and prevents the employee from ignoring this expectation and instead doing work (and making a claim later that he or she is entitled to pay and/or should not have had certain hours counted against the employee’s FMLA entitlement).

On the other hand, employers are permitted to communicate with employees while they are on leave, and may even ask employees on occasion to help briefly with something (like providing a summary of the status of a matter, or letting the employer know who the contact is for a project, or where to find a file) without violating the FMLA.  This is typically viewed as something akin to a professional courtesy and will not support an interference claim, so long as it does not cross the

FMLA-Related Updates from the DOL: New Opinion Letters and (Kind of) New Forms

The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently released two new opinion letters relating to the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), which provides eligible employees the right to unpaid, job-protected leave for certain family and medical reasons.  The DOL also issued “new” forms relating to FMLA leave, which should be used on a going-forward basis.

The full opinion letters are available here and here, and the new forms are available here.

Organ Donors

In the first opinion letter, the DOL addressed the question of whether leave resulting from organ donation, including post-operative treatment, could qualify for FMLA leave.  The brief answer:  Yes, so long as the need for leave meets the FMLA’s definition of serious health condition.  An employee’s organ donation can qualify as a serious health condition when it involves “inpatient care” or “continuing treatment.” See 29 C.F.R. §§ 825.114, .115. And, since an organ donation would qualify as a serious health condition whenever it results in an overnight stay in a hospital – which is commonly involved in such donation – it is likely that the FMLA would apply.

Importantly, the reason for the organ donation – e.g., the fact that the organ donor is in good health before the donation or chooses to donate the organ solely to improve someone else’s health – played no bearing in the DOL’s response.  The takeaway:  The DOL is not going to delve into the reason someone has a serious health condition requiring leave (and neither should the

Tips For Drafting Employee Handbooks – Tip #6: Requiring Acknowledgement Forms

This article is the last part of a six-part series.   The purpose of this series is to provide tips and identify potential pitfalls associated with the drafting of an employee handbook.

While an employee handbook serves many functions, its primary purpose from a legal standpoint is to reduce potential liability with respect to claims brought by current and former employees.  Unfortunately, many employers are unwilling to commit the time and bear the expense of implementing an employee handbook (or updating an existing handbook) until after they have been sued and the absence (or poor draftsmanship) of a particular written policy has crippled their defense to an employment claim.  The purpose of this series is to provide tips and identify potential pitfalls associated with the drafting of an employee handbook.  Tip #6 discusses why it is helpful for an employer to require its employees to sign employee handbook acknowledgement forms.

Tip #6: Acknowledgment Forms

In addition to disseminating the employee handbook to all employees, employers should require each employee to sign a form acknowledging receipt of the employee handbook and the responsibility to review the same.  Signed acknowledgment forms should be maintained in employee personnel files.  Once this has been done, employees cannot credibly disclaim having received notice of all policies in the employee handbook.  It also is a good idea to specifically reference important policies (e.g., a harassment policy with a complaint reporting procedure) in the acknowledgment form so that an employee cannot later claim that he/she did not realize

Tips For Drafting Employee Handbooks – Tip #5: Updating Handbooks to Address Changes in the Legal Landscape

This article is part five in a six-part series.  The purpose of this series is to provide tips and identify potential pitfalls associated with the drafting of an employee handbook.

While an employee handbook serves many functions, its primary purpose from a legal standpoint is to reduce potential liability with respect to claims brought by current and former employees.  Unfortunately, many employers are unwilling to commit the time and bear the expense of implementing an employee handbook (or updating an existing handbook) until after they have been sued and the absence (or poor draftsmanship) of a particular written policy has crippled their defense to an employment claim.  The purpose of this series is to provide tips and identify potential pitfalls associated with the drafting of an employee handbook.  Tip #5 focuses on the importance of consistently updating employee handbooks.

Tip #5: Updating Handbooks to Address Changes in the Legal Landscape

An employee handbook can only reduce potential liability if the policies therein are legally compliant.  Accordingly, it pays to review your handbook periodically to ensure that your policies are up to date.

For example, multi-state employers need to be vigilant about ever-changing state-specific (and even city-specific) obligations.  Current hot topics include leave rights (e.g., paid sick leave), drug testing (e.g., protection for medical marijuana use), and pregnancy accommodation.  Rarely will a “one size fits all” policy on any of these or similar subjects be compliant in all jurisdictions.  Accordingly, employers should consider state-specific addenda and update them regularly.

At a

Tips For Drafting Employee Handbooks – Tip #4: Avoiding Invasion of Privacy Claims

This article is part four in a six-part series.  The purpose of this series is to provide tips and identify potential pitfalls associated with the drafting of an employee handbook.

While an employee handbook serves many functions, its primary purpose from a legal standpoint is to reduce potential liability with respect to claims brought by current and former employees.  Unfortunately, many employers are unwilling to commit the time and bear the expense of implementing an employee handbook (or updating an existing handbook) until after they have been sued and the absence (or poor draftsmanship) of a particular written policy has crippled their defense to an employment claim.  Tip #4 addresses how including certain information in an employee handbook may help an employer defend against invasion of privacy claims.

Tip #4: Avoiding Invasion of Privacy Claims

An employer’s investigation of an employee’s potential misconduct can give rise to various claims relating to invasion of privacy.  Employer investigations can take many forms, from physically searching an employee’s desk, locker, or automobile following a complaint of stolen property, to retrieving an alleged harasser’s emails and voicemails while investigating a sexual harassment complaint, to drug and alcohol testing following a workplace accident.  Privacy laws differ quite a bit from state to state.  Accordingly, it is important to consult with local counsel regarding state law requirements, especially with respect to drug and alcohol testing which is one of the more heavily regulated areas of employment law.  With that disclaimer, there are certain measures that all

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