How Can Congress Improve The FMLA? Let's Count the Ways...

by Franczek Radelet P.C.

Over the past month, as we recognized the 20th Anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, advocates for employees and employers have been clamoring for changes to the Act.  

On one hand, employee advocates are calling for a broad expansion of the FMLA that would allow for paid leave or broader coverage (e.g., lowering the threshhold so more employers are required to provide FMLA leave and extending the Act to part-time employees).

On the other hand, the employer community has called upon Congress and the Department of Labor to fix the ills of the FMLA.  Count me among them. In a column I wrote for the Chicago Tribune this past weekend, I encouraged federal lawmakers to repair a broken FMLA before they tackle the issue of mandated paid leave. 

My Tribune column naturally was limited because of space.  If I had more room, as I do here, I'd share with lawmakers and the Department of Labor changes I believe are necessary to improve the FMLA so that it works for employees and employers for the next 20 years.

From my experience assisting employers administer the FMLA, I find that the FMLA and its regulations are (most) flawed in three fundamental areas: the definition of a serious health condition, the use of intermittent leave and the medical certification process.  Here's what I'd encourage Congress and the DOL to change:

Clearly Define Serious Health Condition

During its deliberations before passing the FMLA, Congress made clear that the term "serious health condition" was not intended to cover "short-term conditions for which treatment and recovery are very brief,” “minor illnesses which last only a few days,” or “surgical procedures which typically do not involve hospitalization and require only a brief recovery period.”  Rightfully so, these medical conditions should be covered by typical sick leave or PTO policies.  

So, why has "serious health condition" become so watered down?  Let's use a good example.  In a 1995 opinion letter, the DOL found that a common cold or flu, absent complications, would not satisfy the definition of a serious health condition.  WH Opinion Letter FMLA-S7 (Apr. 7, 1995). However, just a year later, DOL pulled back on this interpretation, stating that the 1995 opinion “expresses an incorrect view, being inconsistent with the Department’s established interpretation of qualifying serious health conditions under the FMLA regulations.”  WH Opinion Letter FMLA-86 (Dec. 12, 1996).   In its opinion letter, the DOL stated that minor illnesses would be considered serious health conditions if they otherwise meet the incapacity and continuing treatment prongs of the FMLA.  In doing so, the DOL arguably rendered meaningless the regulation relating to the common cold and flu.  Put another way, minor illnesses that should have never been covered by FMLA are now covered by the Act.  That has to change.

To ensure that employees are provided FMLA leave consistent with what Congress intended, the following changes should be considered:

  • Give meaning to the FMLA regulation regarding common colds and the flu, recognizing a strong presumption that these kinds of conditions are not covered by the Act.  The DOL should take a hard look at what's "minor" and make sure those conditions stay in that category.  This is what ordinary sick leave or PTO policies are good for.
  • Continuing treatment should be defined as two visits to a health care provider within 30 days of the onset of incapacity.  As it stands now, an employee can go to the doctor once, get an antibiotic, and qualify for FMLA.  Remove the mumbo jumbo in the rules and make it clear -- if the medical condition is serious enough to qualify for FMLA, the employee should have two visits to the doctor.  We require two visits in one year for a chronic condition, so why not two visits in 30 days for a condition that renders the employee incapacitated for several days.  This change would alleviate the need to determine whether the employee is under a "regimen of continuing treatment," which is entirely (and rightfully) confusing to HR professionals.
  • Increase the number of days of incapacity.  Common colds and flu can last several days, thereby potentially triggering the FMLA.  The period of incapacity should be a full calendar week.

Use of Intermittent Leave

Ask HR professionals or in-house attorneys to put together a Top Three pet peeve list, and they will tell you the bane of their existence is administering FMLA leave, particularly where intermittent leave is involved.  Why? Because intermittent leave comes in dribs and drabs, all of which naturally lend themselves to a whole lot of abuse.  In a 2007 survey, "FMLA and its Impact on Organizations," SHRM found that 66% of HR folks reported challenges with intermittent leave abuse and over 40% felt they had to approve a request they believe was not legitimate.  

How do we clean up intermittent leave?  I know all of you have plenty of suggestions (and I welcome them), but here are a few of mine:

  • Allow more flexibility in seeking recertification.  Too many certifications supporting intermittent leave list the duration of the condition as "indefinite" or "lifetime."  In these situations, an employer can recertify only every six months.  Unless the employer receives reliable infor­mation that the circumstances have changed significantly, the employee can go quite a bit of time without recertification. Medical certification in these instances should be valid for a much shorter period to time -- perhaps 60 or 90 days.
  • Require the use of FMLA leave in half-day or full-day increments.  In its latest regulatory changes, the DOL confirmed that unforeseeable FMLA leave can be taken in teeeeeeny-tiiiiiiiny increments.  What does this mean for employers?  That we will continue to be nickeled and dimed to death.  I am shocked at the amount of time my clients spend logging small increments of FMLA time and following up on these leave requests. Requiring longer increments will greatly help employers track and manage leave, and I think it will cause employees to be more judicious about their use of FMLA.  
  • Endorse policies that require submission of doctors' notes for absences.  Under the FMLA, employers arguably cannot require an employee to submit a doctor's note for an absence already covered by valid medical certification.  In fact, employers have been dinged for engaging in such a practice (listen to our podcast on this topic here).  But why?  If the employer has reason to doubt an absence, or simply wants confirmation that the employee was incapable of working, the DOL should support an employer's right to seek confirmation from the employee's doctor.  Simple as that!
  • Employers need a better solution for employees who are on indefinite, unpredictable absences from work.  An employee who has rhinitis ten times per month for one-half day each?  One who has a chronic bad back fifteen times per month for 1-2 days per flare up?  Another who has IBS and his schedule is entirely unpredictable?  These present a most difficult conundrum, as the need for leave may or may not be legitimate.  Where do we draw the line?  We may never be able to arrive at a solution that makes everyone happy, but at a minimum, employers must be given the option to deal with these situations to better accommodate their operations, such as temporarily reassigning the employee or placing them on a block leave of absence. 

Medical Certification

This list could just as easily be a continuation of the intermittent leave section above, but here are a few more suggestions where medical certification is concerned:

  • Require more specific information in the "medical facts" section of the certification form, including the requirement that the health care provider report a diagnosis.
  • Allow employers to obtain more information supporting the notion that a medical condition actually incapacitated an employee from working on a particular occasion. Again, employers often are stuck with whatever the certification on file indicates, yet they have no confidence that, for example, a migraine headache on a particular day renders the employee unable to perform the job.  
  • Similarly, employers are skeptical when there appears to be no objective clinical basis for deter­mining that the employee has a serious health conditions that incapacitates them from working.  Instead, the doctor relies on an employee's subjective complaints.  The DOL should insist that medical certification provide evidence of objective clinical evidence of a serious health condition.
  • When the employee fails to submit certification or fails to cure a poorly composed certification, there should be a stronger presumption that the employer can deny leave. Too many employers are gun shy about denying leave in these instances.  They also are confused as to the latitude they must give employees to cure an insufficient certification. The DOL should provide stronger language supporting employers' rights in this area.
  • The second and third opinion process should carry more weight, and employers should be able to rely on them for absences in the past and the future.  The DOL covers this process in a paragraph or two in the regulations.  However, as employers increasingly use this costly second and third opinion process, these processes should be given greater weight as to absences that occur in the future.  As it stands now, it's entirely unclear whether these opinions apply in the future.  A handful of court cases say that employers should be able to rely on them.  DOL should endorse the same approach.

Dang, I'm pooped.  Chew on these for awhile, then tell me what you would change about the FMLA and its regulations so that it would work better for both employees and employers.  I'll post all feedback below in the comment section.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Franczek Radelet P.C. | Attorney Advertising

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