By now, many employers can recite the basic requirements of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in their sleep. The law provides eligible employees (those who have at least one year of service and 1,250 hours under their belt) with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave over a 12-month period for qualifying family-related or medical reasons. FMLA covers companies with 50 or more employees located within 75 miles of each other.
While the law itself is conceptually straightforward, administration can become incredibly complex — especially when you throw other types of leave entitlements into the mix such as workers' comp, disability leave, and paid time off (PTO).
HR Dive recently spoke with three employment law attorneys about the most common — and costly — leave administration errors employers make when it comes to the intersection of FMLA and paid leave.
Mistake #1: Not running leaves concurrently
"I would say that the biggest issue that we see is a lot of employers do not have policies that provide for the use of paid time off concurrently with the FMLA," said attorney Molly Batsch, an officer at the St. Louis office of Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, P.C. "[Because] the FMLA regulations allow employers to require employees to use any paid time off concurrently with unpaid FMLA leave, we really encourage employers to put that specifically in their policies."
Attorney Jeff Nowak, a partner at the Chicago office of Franczek Radelet P.C., concurred via email: "A decent number of employers don't realize that they can run FMLA leave concurrently with paid leave benefits such as worker's compensation benefits — or they forget to run both at the same time."
Failing to run leaves concurrently, when permitted, can be costly for employers. A series of consecutive leaves strung together can mean longer absences and increased workplace disruption.
Mistake #2: Policy confusion
A similar mistake employers make is that they don't explicitly outline the concurrent rule to employees. Your FMLA policy should make clear that any paid time off will run concurrently with unpaid FMLA time, advised Batsch: "I think that employers have a few misconceptions about that.
"The first misconception would be that the employee gets to pick," she said. "If the employee doesn't want to run the two concurrently, then they can go ahead and take 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA and then they can take their five weeks of vacation after that, and that is not the case. It is permissible for an employer to require that time to run concurrently. So that's the first mistake I see."
Make sure your policy is abundantly obvious about that so employees don't get upset about that requirement when it's being administered.
Mistake #3: Missing an important caveat about FMLA and paid leave
There is an important exception to the general rule that employers may require an employee to use paid leave during unpaid FMLA leave, one that many employers miss, according to all three attorneys HR Dive spoke with.
"If an employee is on FMLA leave and simultaneously in receipt of a paid benefit, in any amount, FMLA leave is considered paid. When it's paid FMLA, an employer may not require that the employee substitute PTO — but it can permit that," said attorney David Mohl, a principal at the Atlanta office of Jackson Lewis PC.
For example, he said, if short-term disability provides 70% income replacement, an employer cannot require that the employee use PTO (or other paid leave) to make up the difference. If, however, there is a waiting period before that paid benefit kicks in — say, seven days — an employer may require the use of paid leave during that seven days.
Batsch noted that even if the employee is receiving paid time off via a third-party disability plan rather than an employer disability plan, "that's still a situation where you can't require an employee to run their paid time off concurrently with their FMLA time." This was clarified by the Seventh Circuit in a 2007 case (Repa v. Roadway Express, Inc., 477 F.3d 938).
Mistake #4: Forgetting to consider the patchwork of local laws
"The growing number of state and local laws heap a load of additional compliance concerns onto employers," said Nowak. "Not only are there additional considerations for accrual, carryover, and reasons for leave, but these new leave laws tend to provide job-protected leave in situations where the medical condition is not covered by the FMLA. As a result, employers cannot discipline an employee for an absence when he or she is utilizing leave covered by one of these leave laws."
Of course, those laws only make the interactions with FMLA management more complex.
"Paid parental leave policies interact with FMLA and gender discrimination laws," said Mohl. "PPL policies are, of course, a type of paid leave; some operate as a disability benefit."
Paid leave will likely continue to expand in scope in the coming months as more states and cities consider mandating it. Currently, 10 states and about 30 localities guarantee some type of paid sick leave. A number of federal policies have also been proposed, but no movement has been seen at that level yet.