The Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act have been in effect for more than two decades. Yet, these laws continue to present challenges for employers seeking to balance the legal entitlements of employees against the need to meet operational and workload demands.
While both FMLA and ADA provide employees with the right to take a leave of absence under qualifying circumstances, employers often lose sight of the fact that the combination of these laws, as well as state leave law obligations, may increase employer responsibilities. When employers fail to consider their legal responsibilities under each law, the potential for legal exposure increases significantly.
Leave of absence issues can be frustrating for employers particularly when a recently hired employee develops a medical issue that results in an inability to work. Most employers would like to tell new employees that their short tenure disqualifies them from leave. Yet, even where an employee does not meet the FMLA eligibility requirements because he has not worked for the employer for a total of 12 months, worked 1250 hours in the 12 month period preceding the commencement of the leave, or works at a small work site, that new employee, if disabled, may still be entitled to a leave of absence under ADA or applicable state law.
Likewise, even after an employee has exhausted FMLA leave, employers must be careful not to prematurely terminate an employee who cannot resume duties immediately and on a full-time basis.
The ADA and applicable state law require an employer to consider whether additional leave is a reasonable accommodation or presents an undue hardship and must be prepared to consider providing other types of reasonable accommodations (e.g., adjusted work schedule, work from home arrangements or the removal of non-essential job functions) to enable the employee to return to work. The failure to consider the potential leave obligations to an employee both before and after the use of FMLA leave creates significant legal exposure for employers.
Another area of concern for employers is the new EEOC guidance regarding pregnancy discrimination. The FMLA provides leave to employees related to the birth and care of a child. Moreover, while under the ADA, pregnancy is generally not considered an impairment and, therefore, not a disability, employees may have other medical conditions or impairments related to their pregnancy (e.g., diabetes) that are covered disabilities and for which an employee may be eligible for leave or other reasonable accommodations.
More recently, in considering an employers obligation under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act not to discriminate against employees on the basis of pregnancy, the EEOC has emphasized that an employer is obligated to provide leave and hold a position open for an employee with a pregnancy related absence for the same length of time that positions are held open for employees on temporary disability leave.
As an enforcement matter, the EEOC appears to be taking the position that pregnant employees with medical conditions are eligible for leave as an accommodation, even if not disabled. Similarly, some state and local non-discrimination laws (e.g., New Jersey and Philadelphia) have more recently expanded employers obligations to accommodate pregnant employees.
This trend requires that employers view their obligation to provide leave to pregnant employees more broadly than just the FMLA and should be prepared to consider and grant leave requests (and provide job protection benefits) to such employees even where FMLA is not applicable.
In many instances, an employee seeking a leave of absence for his or her own medical condition has also applied for short term disability or workers compensation benefits. Employers should be cautious not be base their decision on whether to approve an employees leave request on an insurance carriers decision regarding insurance benefits.
For example, while an individual may be denied short term disability benefits under an insurance plans definition of a covered condition, this does not diminish the fact that the employee may still have a serious health condition necessitating a leave of absence. Similarly, when an employee is denied workers compensation benefits while the carrier investigates whether the injury was work-related, the employee may still be disabled under the law, and therefore, entitled to a leave as an accommodation.
Given the varying definitions of qualifying conditions under the insurance contracts, employers should not rely on the carriers to make a determination of leave eligibility. Instead, employers take control of the leave approval process and require employees to directly provide supporting medical documentation.
In light of the complexities of managing the various leave laws, employers should regularly review and update their leave policies to ensure they adequately address obligations under the FMLA, ADA and state law. In particular, references to a fixed leave period after which employment is terminated should be removed and descriptions of the availability of disability and workers compensation insurance benefits should be clearly stated as insurance benefits, not leave entitlements.
Finally, managers should be trained to report all employee requests for leave to human resources to enable the prompt assessment of the obligation to provide leave.
Linda B. Hollinshead is a partner at Duane Morris LLP. She practices in the area of employment law.
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