Category Archives: FMLA

New Forms! FMLA & FCRA

Contributed by Noah A. Frank, September 27, 2018

48895877 - hand with pen over application form

hand with pen over form

In September 2018, the U.S. DOL published “updated” FMLA forms and the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau published updated FCRA forms.

DOL – Family and Medical Leave Act Forms

The DOL’s September 4, 2018 update is trivial: only the expiration date changed (now extended to August 31, 2021). There are no other changes to information, questions, or even layout (indeed, they maintain their prior revision date). Nonetheless, employers should promptly update their files with these new template forms. 

The forms are all available from the DOL’s  Wage and Hour Division be individually downloaded by clicking on the following links, or simply send an email and we will gladly provide them to you:

CFPB – Fair Credit Reporting Act Form Notice

On September 12, 2018, the CFPB released an updated Fair Credit Reporting Act Notice.  This is an important document to be provided to employees when using a third-party provider to obtain a “consumer report,” such as criminal background check or financial history inquiry.

Enforced by the U.S. EEOC in the employment context, failure to strictly comply with the FCRA has resulted in a significant increase in employment class action and discrimination lawsuits, including by professional plaintiffs — those who never really intended to work for the company, but found an opportunity to make a few dollars from a noncompliant company through threatening litigation and obtaining a nice settlement.

As part of the company’s regulatory compliance, ensure that the company and any third-party vendor immediately updates their FCRA notices, available from the CFPB in English and Spanish. 

As always seek the advice of competent employment counsel if there are any concerns with the use, completion, or interpretation of any of these government documents.

 

DOL Opinion Letter: Excessive 15-Minute Breaks Are Not Compensable

Contributed by JT Charron, April 25, 2018

On April 12, 2018, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued an opinion letter addressing the intersection between the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when an employee needs multiple rest breaks throughout the day due to an FMLA covered serious health condition.

employee with clock in background

Employee working with clock in background

Background

The FLSA generally requires employers to compensate employees for all time spent working. Although the Act does not require employers to provide rest or meal breaks, it does regulate whether such breaks—if provided by the employer—must be paid as compensable working time. Specifically, breaks of up to 20 minutes are generally considered primarily for the benefit of the employer and must be paid.

The FMLA, on the other hand, provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave for employees with a serious health condition. FMLA leave may be taken incrementally and, in certain circumstances, in periods of less than one hour.

Employers are not required to pay for excessive breaks

What if an employee needs to take multiple breaks during the work day due to his/her serious health condition? According to Opinion Letter FLSA 2018-19, such breaks are not compensable because they are not “primarily for the benefit of the employer.” Importantly, however, the DOL noted that an employer must still compensate the employee for breaks she would have received regardless of her serious health condition. To illustrate this point, the DOL provided the following example:

[I]f an employer generally allows all of its employees to take two paid 15-minute rest breaks during an 8-hour shift, an employee needing 15-minute rest breaks every hour due to a serious health condition should likewise receive compensation for two 15-minute rest breaks during his or her 8-hour shift.

Employer takeaway

Employers can rest easy knowing that they do not have to pay employees for unlimited rest breaks simply because they are necessitated by an FMLA-approved serious health condition. Employers should carefully administer and track any such breaks to ensure compliance with both the FMLA and FLSA—along with any applicable state or local laws (e.g., local paid sick leave laws and required paid rest breaks).

 

House Republicans Try to Remedy Patchwork of Paid Sick Leave

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, November 10, 2017

Eight states, the District of Columbia, and more than 30 municipalities have enacted laws mandating differing paid leave requirements. Localities such as New York and San Francisco, have enacted some of the most aggressive sick leave requirements in the country. Employers doing business within the City of Chicago have also been left to deal with a trifecta of sick leave laws in 2017:  the IL Employee Sick Leave Act, the Cook County Paid Sick Leave ordinance, and the City of Chicago paid sick leave ordinance. All of this has resulted in an administrative nightmare for employers dealing with more than one set of sick leave requirements.

sick leave 2

On November 2, 2017, three Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, Reps. Mimi Walters (R-CA), Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), introduced a bill, The Workflex in the 21st Century Act (H.R. 4219). Supporters of the bill tout that the legislation gives employees job flexibility, while also giving employers more certainty and predictability over their leave practices. The bill provides for a voluntary program that is comprised of a combination of guaranteed paid leave and increased workplace flexibility options to employees. The amount of paid leave required (ranging from 12 days up to 20 days) would depend on an employee’s tenure and the employer’s size.  At least one type of workflex option would also be made available to employees, which may include a compressed work schedule, biweekly work program, telecommuting program, job-sharing program, flexible scheduling or a predictable schedule.  The incentive for an employer is that participation in the program would shield it from the mish-mosh of paid leave obligations stemming from state and local laws currently in effect.

The bill would not require employees to use the workflex option in order to take advantage of the paid days off. Also, to be eligible for a workflex arrangement, an employee would have to be employed for at least 12 months by the employer and would have to have worked at least 1,000 hours during the previous 12 months. More details regarding the bill can be found here.

Bottom line: Where this bill will end up obviously remains to be seen, but it has strong support from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, National Association of Women Business Owners and other employer groups. Until there is a solution to the administrative hopscotch required of employers whose employees work in different cities, counties and states, employers must do their best to stay on top of the applicable paid sick leave requirements and related rules and regulations, and adjust their policies and procedures accordingly.

Seventh Circuit Holds that Multiple-Month Extended Leaves Are Not Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA

Contributed by Allison P. Sues, September 27, 2017

Because not all recoveries from medical conditions come in neat twelve-week packages, employers commonly need to address employees’ requests for additional leave after they have exhausted all leave afforded under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) or company policy.

Clock and StethoscopeThe U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long taken the position that terminating an employee who has exhausted FMLA leave, but is still not able to return to work, may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). For instance, the EEOC guidance, issued on May 9, 2016, opined that providing additional leave may be necessary as a reasonable accommodation.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a decision running contrary to this EEOC guidance and the prevailing precedent in other circuits, holding in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., that an employee is not entitled to extended leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

In this case, employee Severson took a twelve-week medical leave from work under the FMLA to deal with serious back pain (the statutory maximum). Shortly before this leave expired, Severson notified his employer that he was scheduled to undergo back surgery, and requested an additional two to three months of leave to recover from surgery. The company 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 a failure to reasonably accommodate his disability—namely, a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court and clarified that a medical leave spanning multiple months is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation. Finding that the employer did not violate the ADA by refusing to provide the additional leave, the Seventh Circuit explicitly stated that an employee, who cannot not work or perform their job’s essential functions, is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA.  Further highlighting its position, the Court distinguished between the FMLA, which it held was intended to provide long-term medical leave for those who cannot work, while the ADA is meant to require accommodation only for those “that can do the job.”

Before employers in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana reinstate strict Maximum Leave Policies and No-Fault Termination policies, whereby employees are automatically terminated if they cannot return to work when FMLA or other awarded leave is exhausted, several limitations to Severson should be noted.

Severson’s holding is limited to “medical leave[s] spanning multiple months.” The Court acknowledged that finite extensions of leave for shorter durations – described as “a couple of days or even a couple of weeks”, but less than multiple months – may still be deemed a reasonable accommodation.

The Court further acknowledged that intermittent leaves of short duration may constitute reasonable accommodations in the same way a part-time or modified work schedule may be a reasonable accommodation for employees dealing with medical flare-ups. Moreover, employers should be cautious about maintaining 100% Healed Policies, whereby an employer requires employees to have no medical restrictions whatsoever when their leave ends.

At any time employees have exhausted their leave, but are not fully cleared to return to work, the employer should engage in the ADA’s interactive process and consider the following before deciding to terminate employment:

  • Whether the employee’s current medical restrictions affect the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the position;
  • If the restrictions do impact the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions, are reasonable accommodations available that would enable the employee to perform these functions;
  • Whether vacant positions exist that the employee would be qualified to perform and could be reassigned into;
  • Whether the employer has a policy of creating light-duty positions for employees who are occupationally injured and whether this benefit could be extended to the employee without posing an undue hardship; and
  • Whether the employee’s request for additional leave is definite in time and of a short duration, and if this extended leave could be provided without posing an undue hardship.

 

Responding to Violence in the Workplace – A “Catch 22” for Employers

Contributed by Michael Wong, August 10, 2017

Workplace investigation

The recent instances of violence in the workplace remind us of the complex task facing employers. Employers must maintain a safe work environment for employees while operating within the parameters of the many federal and state laws that may protect certain employee conduct. More importantly, because an employer has no objective “litmus test” for predicting which employee may become violent under particular triggering circumstances, there is no foolproof way to effectively eliminate the hazard.

Employers today can find themselves in a seemingly untenable dilemma when they have violence threaten to invade their workplace, as disciplining or terminating the problem employee can result in a legal claim as well.

In Mayo v. PCC Structurals, Inc., 795 F.3d 941, 942 (9th Cir. 2015), the employer, PCC, terminated the plaintiff, Thomas Mayo, after he made threatening comments to three co-workers that he was going to bring a gun to work and start “shooting people.” After the threats were reported, the employer took the proper precautions by immediately suspending the plaintiff, barring him from company property, and notifying the police. The police took him to the hospital for medical treatment on the basis that he was an imminent threat to himself and others.

After taking three months of leave under the FMLA and Oregon’s equivalent state law, a treating psychologist cleared Mayo to return to work, but recommended a new supervisor assignment. Instead, the employer terminated Mayo. Plaintiff then sued PCC alleging he was terminated because of his disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state law.

In Mayo v. PCC, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employee who made serious and credible threats of violence against coworkers is not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA or Oregon’s disability discriminatory law. In granting summary judgment to the employer, the Court held that an essential function of almost every job is the ability to appropriately handle stress and interact with others, and that an individual is not qualified and cannot perform the essential functions of the job if he or she threatens to kill co-workers – regardless of whether such threats stem from a mental condition or disability.

What should employers do?

Against this potential liability minefield, an employer should develop an effective written workplace violence preventative policy. For those who already have policies in place, it would be a good idea to review your policies and practices with your legal counsel to make sure that these issues and any potential concerns are properly addressed.

Ask yourself the following questions to see if your policy needs to be modified in light of the recent lawsuits:

  1. Do your policies advise employees that they will be subject to discipline (up to and including termination) if they “fail to foster collegiality, harmony, positive attitude, and good relations in the workplace?”
  2. Do you have a statement that there is “zero tolerance” regarding threats or acts of violence?
  3. Do your managers/supervisors know what steps should be taken if there is a threat, complaint of bullying or violence?
  4. Have your managers, supervisors and employees been trained on identifying signs and symptoms of behavior which may predict potential violence (erratic behavior; comments regarding violence, homicide or suicide; provocative communications; disobedience of policies and procedures; presence of alcohol, drugs or weapons on the worksite; evidence of violent tendencies or abuse of alcohol or drug use)?
  5. Have your managers and supervisors been trained and regularly reminded about the importance of good documentation and dangers of bad documentation?

Recent Appellate Court Decision Provides Guidance For Investigating Intermittent FMLA Abuse

Contributed by Steven Jados, December 8, 2016

Intermittent FMLA leave can be a source of frustration for employers even when it is used appropriately because it complicates staffing and planning and interrupts business operations. But when an employee’s use of intermittent leave seems just too convenient (e.g., when it is regularly used on Fridays and Mondays to make long weekends), employers naturally grow suspicious.

The recent Sharif v. United Airlines, Inc., decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit confirms that if an employer is able to prove intermittent FMLA abuse by conducting a prompt and thorough internal investigation, and perhaps some luck, it is justified in taking action against an FMLA abuser.

Sharif arranged his schedule so that he was required to work only one shift – March 30 — during a three-week period. Having arranged that schedule, Sharif took a vacation to South Africa.  At approximately 1 a.m. on March 30th, Sharif left a voicemail saying he needed to take intermittent FMLA leave for his shift that day.

out of office at the beachSharif’s use of intermittent FMLA leave in the midst of a lengthy vacation struck United as unusual as did the fact that Sharif’s wife (also a United employee) was taking similarly-scheduled time-off. Furthermore, Sharif had taken FMLA under similarly suspicious circumstances in 2013. United investigated Sharif’s whereabouts and learned, among other things, there were no flights from South Africa at that time would have allowed him to return to the U.S. in time for his shift. When United questioned Sharif, his story shifted multiple times suggesting he was being dishonest. Ultimately, United concluded Sharif never intended to work his March 30th shift and terminated him.

Sharif sued alleging he was terminated in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. United responded that Sharif’s use of FMLA leave on March 30th was fraudulent. United prevailed in the district court without a trial, and the appellate court upheld the judgment because United made “a reasonably informed and considered decision” before terminating Sharif.

United’s investigation uncovered facts—and an equivocating employee—that made the case for termination a much easier decision than most employers typically face. Nevertheless, employers can still learn lessons from the thoroughness of United’s investigation. When faced with suspected FMLA abuse, employers should conduct as much of the investigation as possible before interviewing the employee. When it is time to interview the employee, employers must carefully document the answers the employee provides. If the employee is a habitual FMLA abuser, careful documentation of prior explanations for FMLA use may, over time, reveal inconsistencies and untruths that are helpful in the future.

The bottom line is that FMLA abuse is usually difficult to establish. Employers should consult with experienced labor and employment counsel before, during, and after any investigation of suspected abuse to ensure that whatever decision is made is supported by strong evidence that can withstand court scrutiny.

HR Director May Be Individually Liable Under FMLA

Contributed by Debra Mastrian

A recent Second Circuit case, Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, Case No. 15-888-cv (Mar. 17, 2016), offers a sobering lesson for human resources personnel and supervisors who handle the administration of leave requests under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The Court held that an HR Director may be liable as an employer, as a “person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interest of an employer” toward an employee. Finding that the FMLA definition of employer is similar to the definition under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Court agreed with other circuits (including the 3rd and 5th) who have applied the economic-reality test to find individual liability under the FMLA. [Note: The Seventh Circuit has not yet addressed the issue, although District Courts in Illinois and Indiana have issued opinions agreeing that individuals may be liable under the FMLA.]

The key issue under the economic-reality test is the power the individual has over the employee’s terms and conditions of employment, including whether the individual has the power to hire and fire the employee, maintains employment records, determines the rate and method of pay, or sets and supervises the work schedule. However, the most critical factor is whether or not the individual controlled FMLA leave.

EmployerIn Graziadio, the employee initially took leave to care for a sick child, and then later took additional leave to care for another child who had broken his leg. The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) took issue with the FMLA paperwork, claiming it was not sufficient to justify the absences, and would not let the employee return to work without new documentation. The CIA did not clarify what additional information was needed or why the original paperwork was insufficient. The HR Director never provided any clarification and refused to let the employee return without a face-to-face meeting. The meeting never occurred, but the employee provided updated medical documentation. The HR Director did not respond and ultimately terminated the employee for job abandonment. The employee sued the CIA and HR Director for interference and retaliation under the FMLA among other things.

The Second Circuit found there was sufficient evidence for a jury to conclude that the HR Director was an employer in economic reality and that she interfered with the employee’s rights. Even though the ultimate ability to terminate rested with the President, since the President did not conduct an independent investigation and agreed with the HR Director’s recommendation to terminate, the HR Director “played an important role.” The HR Director also exercised control of the employee’s schedule and conditions of employment by handling the FMLA leave, including reviewing the paperwork, and communicating with the employee.

What can employers take away from this case?  Until the United States Supreme Court weighs in on this issue, employers should inform HR personnel and supervisors handling FMLA requests of their potential individual liability and ensure they are regularly trained on compliance. If employers or their HR personnel choose to challenge an employee’s paperwork, they need to be prepared to provide specific reasons to justify their actions.