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New DOL Opinion Letter: Employers May Not Delay FMLA Leave Designations

By: Philip Qualo, J.D.

On March 14, 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) released an Opinion Letter advising that an employer may not delay designating a leave of absence, paid or unpaid, as a leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA”) (if the leave qualifies as an FMLA leave). In addition, this Opinion Letter details that an employer may not permit employees to extend FMLA leave beyond the 12-weeks (or 26 weeks for military caregiver leave) granted under the FMLA.

Under the FMLA, employees of covered employers are entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave with job protection benefits in the event of certain family and medical situations. The FMLA also permits eligible employees to take up to 26 weeks of leave to care for a covered service member with a serious illness or injury. It is the employer’s responsibility under the FMLA to designate leave as qualifying leave for FMLA purposes.

Prior to the release of the Opinion, many employers permitted employees to delay FMLA designation in specific situations. For example, in order to allow for a full 12-week FMLA leave for a new mother and her newborn to bond, employers would usually allow expectant mothers who needed to commence leave prior to the delivery date the ability to use accrued Personal Time Off (“PTO”) or sick pay until the delivery date. For example, the FMLA designation would begin onthe date of birth instead of the date the mother went on leave prior to delivery.  Many employers were under the impression FMLA designation was a matter of mutual agreement between an employer and employee as opposed to a matter of law.

The Opinion Letter specifically provides that employers are prohibited from delaying the designation of FMLA-qualifying leave as FMLA leave. The Opinion Letter also notes that neither the employee nor employer can decline FMLA protection for FMLA qualifying leave once the employee has communicated a need to take leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason. Thus, once the employer determines that the leave request is for a FMLA-qualifying leave, the leave is FMLA-protected and is counted towards the employee’s 12-week (or 26-week) FMLA leave entitlement. The Opinion Letter advises that once the employer determines the leave is FMLA-qualifying leave, the employer must provide notice of the determination to the employee within five business days. The employer does not have the option to delay this determination once the employer has the information to make such a determination.

The Opinion letter further noted that an employer is prohibited from designating more than 12 weeks of leave (26 weeks in the case of military caregiver leave) as FMLA leave. The DOL notes that an employer can still honor any family and medical leave program it offers outside of the FMLA requirements, even if the offered leave program provides greater leave benefits than that offered under the FMLA. However, any employer-provided leave is separate from the FMLA leave and cannot expand an employee’s FMLA-designated leave beyond 12 (or 26) weeks. If the employer wishes to be generous and extend leave for an employee after FMLA leave exhausts, it should specify in its plan document and employee handbook that any employer-provided leave will not run concurrently with FMLA and therefore once FMLA exhausts, an employer-provided leave can be offered thereafter. An employer should be careful when it comes to continuation of coverage during an employer-provided leave, and if coverage is offered during such a leave, it should be outlined in the plan document.

Employers subject to the FMLA should review their practices, policies, and employee communications regarding FMLA-leave designation and to ensure they are consistent with the guidance provided by the DOL in the Opinion Letter. Specifically, employers should be providing notice of determination within five days of making a FMLA-leave designation, and should not designate more than 12 (or 26) weeks as FMLA-qualifying leave, even if the employee requests to have more than 12 (or 26) weeks designated as FMLA leave or to have an FMLA-qualifying leave treated as non-FMLA leave. Compliance with FMLA and the Opinion Letter is especially important employers who sponsor self-funded health plans as incorrectly designating or extending FMLA for employees could run afoul of the plan document’s continuation of coverage provisions and create issues with stop-loss reimbursement.