The Ongoing Dilemma of Intermittent FMLA Leave
Intermittent FMLA leave is a giant thorn in the side of human resource professionals across the country. The struggle is that not all intermittent leave requests are equal. Here’s a look at some of the most common scenarios, and how to handle them. The FMLA allows employers some flexibility in granting different kinds of intermittent leave. Employees are entitled to take it for serious health conditions, either their own or those of immediate family members. The law also allows use of intermittent leave for child care after the birth or placement of an adopted child, but only if the employer agrees to it. It’s the company’s call. It’s not always simple, however. If the mother develops complications from childbirth, or the infant is born premature and suffers from health problems, the “serious health condition” qualifier would likely kick in. As always, it pays to know the medical details before making a decision.
Eligibility Is Not Automatic
Companies can successfully dispute employee claims to FMLA eligibility. Consider this real-life example:
A female employee in Maine said she suffered from a chronic condition that made it difficult to make it to work on time. After she racked up a number of late arrivals – and refused an offer to work on another shift – she was fired. She sued, saying her tardiness should have been considered intermittent leave. Her medical condition caused her lateness, she claimed, so each instance should have counted as a block of FMLA leave. Problem was, she’d never been out of work for medical treatment, or on account of a flare-up of her condition. The only time it affected her was when it was time to go to work.
The Court denied her claim for FMLA eligibility and indicated that intermittent leave is granted when an employee needs to miss work for a specific period of time, such as a doctor’s appointment or when a condition suddenly becomes incapacitating. That wasn’t the case here, the judge said – and giving the employee FMLA protection would simply have given the woman a blanket excuse to break company rules.
Designating Leave Retroactively
In order to maximize workers’ using up their allotted FMLA leave, employers can sometimes classify an absence retroactively. For example, an employee’s out on two weeks of vacation, but she spends the second week in a hospital recovering from pneumonia. Her employer doesn’t learn of the hospital stay until she returns to work. But she tells her supervisor about it, who then informs HR. Within two days, HR contacts the woman and says, “That week you were in the hospital should be covered by the FMLA. Here’s the paperwork.” The key here is that the company acted quickly – within two days of being notified of the qualifying leave. The tactic’s perfectly legal, and it could make a difference in the impact FMLA leave time could have on the firm’s overall operation. It’s also an excellent example of the key role managers play in helping companies deal with the negative effects of FMLA.
Using Employees’ Paid Time Off
Employers should never tell workers they can’t take FMLA leave until they’ve used up all their vacation, sick and other paid time off (PTO). Instead, companies can require employees to use their accrued PTO concurrently with their intermittent leave time. Employers can also count workers’ comp or short-term disability leave as part of their FMLA time – but in that case, employees can’t be asked to use their accrued PTO.
The Transfer Position
Companies can temporarily transfer an employee on intermittent leave, to minimize the effect of that person’s absence on the overall operation. The temporary position doesn’t need to be equivalent to the original job – but the pay and benefits must remain the same. And, of course, the employee must be given his old job – or its equivalent – when the intermittent leave period’s over.
There is one large restriction – the move can’t be made if the transfer “adversely affects” the individual. An example would be if if the new position would lengthen or increase the cost of the employee’s commute. This would adversely affect the employee. Instead, such transfers need to be handled in such a way as to avoid looking like the employer is trying to discourage the employee from taking intermittent leave – or worse yet, is being punished for having done so.
Although FMLA is certainly an employee-friendly statute, employers do have some rights when it comes to scheduling intermittent leave. For instance, employees are required to consult with their employers about setting up medical treatments on a schedule that minimizes impact on operations. Of course, the arrangement has to be approved by the healthcare provider. But if an employee fails to consult with HR before scheduling treatment, the law allows employers to require the worker to go back to the provider and discuss alternate arrangements.
The Firing Question
Yes, companies can fire an employee who’s on intermittent FMLA leave. Despite the fears of many employers, FMLA doesn’t confer some kind of special dispensation for workers who exercise their leave rights. Obviously, workers can’t be fired for taking leave. But employers can layoff, discipline and terminate those employees who violate company policies or perform poorly. When an employee on FMLA leave is terminated, the Department of Labor decrees that the burdens on the employer to prove the worker would have been laid off, disciplined or terminated regardless of the leave request or usage.
Reductions in Force
When an employer has a valid reason for reducing its workforce, the company can lay off an employee on FMLA leave – as long as the firm can prove the person would have been let go regardless of the leave. However, again companies should be prepared not only to prove the business necessity of the move, but to show an objective, nondiscriminatory plan for choosing which employees would be laid off.
Misconduct or Poor Performance
Employees on FMLA leave – of any type – are just as responsible for following performance and behavior rules as those not on leave. However, companies that fire an employee out on FMLA will be under increased pressure to prove that the decision was based on factors other than the worker’s absence. As such, courts might well pose employers a key question: Why didn’t you fire this person before he/she took leave? This is not an easy answer to explain before a jury if liability is threatened at trial. The good news is that a number of courts have upheld employers’ rights to fire employees on FMLA leave, even when the employee’s problems were first discovered when the employee went off the job. Nevertheless, companies should move cautiously if they are to terminate an employee currently out on leave due to misconduct or poor performance existing prior to the leave, but discovered after the leave begins.
Every case is different and requires different strategies and decisions because of the intricacies of the FMLA. Hence, we highly recommend consulting in-house counsel, or one of the attorneys at Lee & Brown, to assist in making the appropriate decisions.