A new U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) opinion letter says warns employers not to delay providing FMLA notice or designating a leave as FMLA-covered when coordinating FMLA protected leave with otherwise available paid or unpaid leave.
FMLA Opinion 2019-1-A states that a FMLA-covered employer must designate as FMLA protected and, absent extenuating circumstances, must provide notice of the designation of the leave as FMLA protected within five business days of the date the employer has enough information to determine an employee has experienced a FMLA qualifying event. The Opinion says this designation and notice must happen even if the employee would prefer that the employer delay the designation of the absence as a FMLA protected leave until the employee exhausts other available leave.
According to WHD, its FMLA regulations require employers to provide a written “designation notice” to an employee within five business days—absent extenuating circumstances—after the employer “has enough information to determine whether the leave is being taken for a FMLA-qualifying reason.” Failure to provide timely notice requirement may constitute an interference with, restraint on, or denial of the exercise of an employee’s FMLA rights. 29 C.F.R. §§ 825.300(e), 825.301(e). Consequently, the Opinion concludes that the employer is responsible in all circumstances for designating leave as FMLA-qualifying and giving notice of the designation to the employee within five days of learning if events triggering the FMLA eligibility. 29 C.F.R. § 825.300(d).
The Opinion also emphasizes that employers cannot delay the designation of a leave as FMLA protected and provision of notice while a FMLA-eligible employee uses otherwise available leave. While acknowledging that the FMLA permits an employer to require, or to permit an employee to elect, to “substitute” accrued paid leave (e.g., paid vacation, paid sick leave, etc.) to cover any part of the unpaid FMLA entitlement period,the Opinion states that “[t]he term substitute means that the paid leave provided by the employer … will run concurrently with the unpaid FMLA leave.” 29 C.F.R. § 825.207(a) (emphasis added). While acknowledging that the FMLA allows employers to adopt leave policies more generous than those required by the FMLA. 29 U.S.C. § 2653; see 29 C.F.R. § 825.700, the Opinion also says an employer may not designate more than 12 weeks of leave—or more than 26 weeks of military caregiver leave—as FMLA-protected. See, e.g., Weidner v. Unity Health Plans Ins. Corp., 606 F. Supp. 2d 949, 956 (W.D. Wis. 2009) (citing cases for the principle that “a plaintiff cannot maintain a cause of action under the FMLA for an employer’s violation of its more-generous leave policy”).
Furthermore, the Opinion also openly rejects and disagrees with the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Escriba v. Foster Poultry Farms, Inc., 743 F.3d 1236, 1244 (9th Cir. 2014) that an employee may use non-FMLA leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason and decline to use FMLA leave in order to preserve FMLA leave for future use. Instead, the Opinion adopts the position that once an eligible employee communicates a need to take leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason, neither the employee nor the employer may decline FMLA protection for that leave. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(d) (“Employees cannot waive, nor may employers induce employees to waive, their prospective rights under FMLA.”); Strickland v. Water Works and Sewer Bd. of City of Birmingham, 239 F.3d 1199, 1204 (11th Cir. 2001) (noting that the employer may not “choose whether an employee’s FMLA-qualifying absence” is protected or unprotected by the FMLA). Accordingly, the Opinion concludes that when an employer determines that leave is for an FMLA-qualifying reason, the qualifying leave is FMLA-protected and counts toward the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement. Once the employer has enough information to make this determination, the employer must, absent extenuating circumstances, provide notice of the designation within five business days. Therefore, the employer may not delay designating leave as FMLA-qualifying or providing notification, even if the employee would prefer that the employer delay the designation.
The Opinion also clarifies the WHD’s interpretation of the FMLA limits the protection of the FMLA to the statutory period set by the FMLA. In this respect, the Opinion states, “An employer is also prohibited from designating more than 12 weeks of leave (or 26 weeks of military caregiver leave) as FMLA leave.” Thus, while acknowledging that “[a]n employer must observe any employment benefit program or plan that provides greater family or medical leave rights to employees than the rights established by the FMLA.” under 29 C.F.R. § 825.700, the Opinion also states that “providing such additional leave outside of the FMLA cannot expand the employee’s 12-week (or 26-week) entitlement under the FMLA.” Therefore, the Opinion states that if an employee substitutes paid leave for unpaid FMLA leave, the employee’s paid leave counts toward his or her 12-week (or 26-week) FMLA entitlement and does not expand that entitlement.
As many employers currently coordinate and administer their FMLA and other leaves inconsistently with the positions stated in the Opinion, employers generally should consult with experienced legal counsel within the scope of attorney client privilege about the implications of the guidance set forth in the Opinion on their existing practices and about whether any corrective action or modifications are advisable in light of the Opinion to minimize potential exposure to FMLA liability. In connection with this review, employers also generally will want to evaluate their other paid and unpaid military, medical, maternity/paternity, adoption and other absence and leave policies and associated employee benefit plans to confirm that these designs continue to operate as intended and that current coordination practices comport with existing guidance.
About the Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of management focused employment, employee benefit and insurance, workforce and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer’s clients include employers and other workforce management organizations; employer, union, association, government and other insured and self-insured health and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plans, fiduciaries, administrators, and other plan vendors; domestic and international public and private health care, education and other community service and care organizations; managed care organizations; insurers, third-party administrative services organizations and other payer organizations; and other private and government organizations and their management leaders.
Throughout her 30 plus year career, Ms. Stamer has continuously worked with these and other management clients to design, implement, document, administer and defend hiring, performance management, compensation, promotion, demotion, discipline, FMLA and other leave, reduction in force and other workforce, employee benefit, insurance and risk management, health and safety, and other programs, products and solutions, and practices; establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; comply with requirements, investigate and respond to government, accreditation and quality organizations, regulatory and contractual audits, private litigation and other federal and state reviews, investigations and enforcement actions; evaluate and influence legislative and regulatory reforms and other regulatory and public policy advocacy; prepare and present training and discipline; handle workforce and related change management associated with mergers, acquisitions, reductions in force, re-engineering, and other change management; and a host of other workforce related concerns. Ms. Stamer’s experience in these matters includes supporting these organizations and their leaders on both a real-time, “on demand” basis with crisis preparedness, intervention and response as well as consulting and representing clients on ongoing compliance and risk management; plan and program design; vendor and employee credentialing, selection, contracting, performance management and other dealings; strategic planning; policy, program, product and services development and innovation; mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcy and other crisis and change management; management, and other opportunities and challenges arising in the course of workforce and other operations management to improve performance while managing workforce, compensation and benefits and other legal and operational liability and performance.
Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, heavily involved in health benefit, health care, health, financial and other information technology, data and related process and systems development, policy and operations throughout her career, and scribe of the ABA JCEB annual Office of Civil Rights agency meeting, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her extensive work and leadership on leading edge health care and benefit policy and operational issues. She regularly helps employer and other health benefit plan sponsors and vendors, health industry, insurers, health IT, life sciences and other health and insurance industry clients design, document and enforce plans, practices, policies, systems and solutions; manage regulatory, contractual and other legal and operational compliance; vendors and suppliers; deal with Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, Medicare/Medicaid Advantage, ERISA, state insurance law and other private payer rules and requirements; contracting; licensing; terms of participation; medical billing, reimbursement, claims administration and coordination, and other provider-payer relations; reporting and disclosure, government investigations and enforcement, privacy and data security; and other compliance and enforcement; Form 990 and other nonprofit and tax-exemption; fundraising, investors, joint venture, and other business partners; quality and other performance measurement, management, discipline and reporting; physician and other workforce recruiting, performance management, peer review and other investigations and discipline, wage and hour, payroll, gain-sharing and other pay-for performance and other compensation, training, outsourcing and other human resources and workforce matters; audits, investigations, enforcement and defense; Civil Rights; privacy and data security; training; risk and change management; regulatory affairs and public policy; process, product and service improvement, development and innovation, and other legal and operational compliance and risk management, government and regulatory affairs and operations concerns.
A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Pension Privatization Project with extensive domestic and international public policy concerns in pensions, healthcare, workforce, immigration, tax, education and other areas, Ms. Stamer has been extensively involved in U.S. federal, state and local health care and other legislative and regulatory reform impacting these concerns throughout her career. Her public policy and regulatory affairs experience encompasses advising and representing domestic and multinational private sector health, insurance, employee benefit, employer, staffing and other outsourced service providers, and other clients in dealings with Congress, state legislatures, and federal, state and local regulators and government entities, as well as providing advice and input to U.S. and foreign government leaders on these and other policy concerns.
Author of leading works on a multitude of labor and employment, compensation and benefits, internal controls and compliance, and risk management matters and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Ms. Stamer also shares her thought leadership, experience and advocacy on these and other related concerns by her service in the leadership of the Solutions Law Press, Inc. Coalition for Responsible Health Policy, its PROJECT COPE: Coalition on Patient Empowerment, and a broad range of other professional and civic organizations including North Texas Healthcare Compliance Association, a founding Board Member and past President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, past Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; former Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children (now Warren Center For Children); current Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, current Vice Chair of Policy for the Life Sciences Committee of the ABA International Section, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, a current Defined Contribution Plan Committee Co-Chair, former Group Chair and Co-Chair of the ABA RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, past Representative and chair of various committees of ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits; an ABA Health Law Coordinating Council representative, former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division, past Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee, a former member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association and others.
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