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COVID-19: FMLA Reminders and Recommendations

March 18, 2020

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As employers navigate the implications of COVID-19 and the workplace, one of the subjects to keep in mind is the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  Employers should be aware that currently pending legislation would temporarily amend the FMLA to, among other things, change the scope of the employers covered by the FMLA (with respect to the new provisions), expand eligibility in certain respects, and provide certain paid leave obligations in light of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).  If that legislation becomes law, employers are encouraged to consult legal counsel to assess what, if any, new obligations they may have.

In the meantime, this post is intended to provide employers with reminders and recommendations for complying with the current version of the FMLA. In addition to reviewing this post, employers should review the FMLA guidance issued recently by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL):  https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/fmla/pandemic.

Eligibility:  Resist the urge to make FMLA available for everyone regardless of eligibility status.

  • While making FMLA leave available to all may seem generous, the DOL has emphasized that it is not permissible to count leave against an employee’s 12-week FMLA entitlement if the employee is not yet eligible for leave (i.e., has

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act May Bring (Slightly Modified) Paid Leave to Employees Working For Employers With Fewer Than 500 Employees And To Government Employers

March 18, 2020

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With the novel coronavirus (“COVID-19”) continuing to spread across the country, the U.S. House of Representatives (“House”) voted in the early hours of March 14, 2020 to provide emergency relief to Americans through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (the “Act”).  While the Act has not yet become law – it must still be passed by the U.S. Senate and signed by President Donald Trump – it is already getting a great deal of attention.

The version of the Act that the House first adopted on March 14th included a variety of resources and benefits, including emergency paid sick leave and emergency paid family and medical leave, for which the Act provides covered employers with a tax credit.  Just two days later, however, on March 16, 2020, the House voted to trim back some of these benefits with respect to emergency paid family and medical leave.

Below is a summary of the latest version of the Act’s highlights for employers; however, employers should note that if the Act becomes law, the emergency paid leave provisions described below will generally only apply to private employers with fewer than 500 employees and to government employers.

In addition, employers should also note that

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

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

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

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

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

Paid Sick Leave to Take Effect in Maryland, Despite Governor’s Veto

Maryland has joined the growing ranks of states across the country mandating employee sick leave. Last year, the General Assembly passed the Healthy Working Families Act, requiring employers to allow employees to earn time off from work.  While Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill late last year, the General Assembly reconvened in January and overrode the veto. The Act takes effect on February 11, 2018, and employers should be prepared to implement changes quickly.

Coverage:

The Act applies to full-time, part-time, and temporary employees. However, it does not apply to any employee who works fewer than 12 hours per week, or employees under 18 years old.  Additionally, the Act contains other exceptions for certain categories of workers, including agricultural workers, construction industry employees that are covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and “as needed” shift employees in the healthcare industry.

Whether sick leave is paid or unpaid depends on the size of the employer. Employers with 15 or more employees must provide up 40 hours of paid sick leave per year.  Employers with 14 or fewer employees must provide employees the same amount of unpaid sick leave.

Accrual:

An employee begins accruing leave immediately upon starting work.  Employers must

California Enacts New Law Expanding Parental Leave to Small Employers

On Thursday, October 12, 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that extends twelve weeks of unpaid parental leave to California employees who work for small businesses.  The New Parent Leave Act applies generally to California employers with at least 20 and no more than 49 employees.  The practical effect of the Act is to expand the parental leave required under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) to smaller employers.  The new law takes effect on January 1, 2018.

Under the New Parent Leave Act, an employee may take up to twelve weeks of unpaid parental leave within one year of a child’s birth, adoption, or foster care placement, so long as the employee (1) works at a location where the employer has at least 20 employees within a 75 mile radius, (2) has at least twelve months of service with the employer, and (3) has worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous twelve months.  The new law requires the employer to maintain the employee’s health care coverage, but the employer can recover the premium paid if the employee fails to return from leave due to a reason other than

ADA Does Not Require Employers to Provide Multi-Month Leave Beyond Expiration of FMLA Leave – Seventh Circuit

This week the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision helpful to employers grappling with whether they must extend an employee’s time off following the expiration of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  See Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754, 2017 WL 4160849 (7th Cir., Sept. 20, 2017).

In Severson, the court found that “[a] multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”  Plaintiff, Severson, had a physically demanding job working for a fabricator of retail display fixtures.  Severson took twelve weeks of FMLA leave due to serious back pain.  During his leave, he scheduled back surgery (to occur on the last day of his FMLA leave), and requested an additional three months of leave.  Defendant, Heartland, denied Severson’s request to continue his medical leave beyond the FMLA entitlement, terminated his employment, and invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work.  Instead, Severson sued, alleging disability discrimination.

In affirming summary judgment in favor of the employer, the 7th Circuit noted that “[t]he ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”  Following its earlier decision in

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