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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.


The Complications Surrounding Intermittent FMLA Leave

By: Erin Hussey, Esq.

 

The Complications Surrounding Intermittent FMLA Leave

 

The Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) is a federal law requiring certain employers (employers who employ 50 or more employees, for at least 20 workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year, in a 75 mile radius), to provide eligible employees an unpaid, job-protected leave of absence that continues the employee’s health benefits. It is offered for family and medical reasons and an eligible employee may take up to 12 workweeks of leave in a 12 month period. This timeline appears straightforward, but complications arise when employees take this leave in separate blocks of time, even an hour at a time (when it is medically necessary and for the same serious health condition). This is called intermittent FMLA leave.

 

Employers should ensure they are administering intermittent FMLA leave properly given the complications it can present:

 

1.            Recordkeeping: Complications can occur with tracking intermittent FMLA leave because an employee’s schedule could vary from week to week and the employer may have to measure FMLA in hourly increments or less. When these intermittent FMLA leaves occur, an employer must be diligent in tracking the leave to avoid liability of non-compliance with FMLA. For example, in Tillman v. Ohio Bell Tel. Co., 545 F. App'x 340 (6th Cir. 2013), an employee was out on intermittent FMLA leave and the employee did not provide information when asked by the employer for recertification of that leave. The employer subsequently terminated the employee. Since the employer kept thorough records of this, the court upheld the employee’s termination and the employer won the lawsuit.

 

2.            Communication: It is important for an employer to maintain communication with the employee who is out on intermittent FMLA leave. For example, in Walpool v. Frymaster, L.L.C., No. CV 17-0558, 2017 WL 5505396 (W.D. La. Nov. 16, 2017), the employee was terminated and he brought suit claiming interference with his intermittent FMLA leave and that his discharge was in retaliation of his right to take FMLA leave. The employer claimed that the employee did not follow normal policies and procedures for giving notice of an absence. However, the employee won the case. The bottom line here is that if the employer believes the employee has provided inadequate notice, the employer should maintain communication with the employee before taking any immediate adverse action.

 

3.            Paid v. Unpaid: In a recent Opinion Letter dated April 12, 2018, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division addressed a situation where an employee requested 15 minute breaks every hour under FMLA. This creates complications for employers because FMLA is unpaid and determining which 15 minute breaks are unpaid under FMLA, and which ones are paid, can be difficult for employers to track. This issue is discussed in the Opinion Letter.

 

The takeaway here is that employers should determine what their best practices will be for administering intermittent FMLA properly. Once the employer determines what their best practices are, the employer should implement them and administer their employees’ intermittent FMLA leaves accordingly.


Natural Disasters (Hurricanes Harvey and Irma) - Don’t Let Them Wreak Havoc on Your Health Plan

By: Kelly Dempsey, Esq.

The last few weeks have been difficult for several states and U.S. territories.  Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have caused significant flooding and damage.  In addition to the loss of power, many people are homeless and corporations/employers are without a place to conduct business.  Depending on the level of damage, it may take a long time for different areas of the country to rebound and rebuild.  Chances are that employee benefits, specifically the health plan, are the last thing on employers’ and employees’ minds, but there are some very important considerations.  So what do Hurricanes Harvey and Irma mean for employers, employer sponsored health plans, TPAs, and employees?  

Self-funded health plans are required to comply with various federal laws that carry different responsibilities including, but not limited to, ERISA, COBRA, FMLA, HIPAA, and the ACA.  These federal laws come with a wide array of notice requirements and time frames for processing claims and appeals and other requests for documents or information.  As such, the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services (collectively referred to as “the Departments”) have issued press releases and bulletins that provide general guidance and limit exposure to penalties.  These press releases were specifically issued after Hurricane Harvey; however, it’s likely that additional releases will be issued to address Hurricane Irma.  Below are links to important press releases; however, the following is one of the key summary statements:

The guiding principle for plans must be to act reasonably, prudently and in the interest of the workers and their families who rely on their health plans for their physical and economic well-being. Plan fiduciaries should make reasonable accommodations to prevent the loss of benefits in such cases and should take steps to minimize the possibility of individuals losing benefits because of a failure to comply with pre-established time-frames.

Health plans and their supporting vendors will likely need to review situations on a case by case basis to determine what is reasonable for each plan and employer.

If you’ve listened to any recent Phia Group webinars, presentations or podcasts, or read our blog or published articles, you already know we’ve been focusing on leaves of absence and gaps between handbooks and plan documents.  You’re probably thinking, “Yes, I know, so what’s your point?”  With all the damage to homes and job sites, it is possible employees may seek leaves of absence and/or employees will ask questions about existing leaves of absence and how the leave is impacted if an employer ceases operations.  While FMLA is generally not available for employees to use as time off to attend to personal matters such as cleaning up debris, flood damage, home repair, etc., FMLA may come into play if an employee or their family member suffers a serious health condition as a result of the hurricane.  For those employees that were already out on FMLA, if an employer ceases operations, the time operations are stopped would not count towards FMLA leave.  As always, FMLA and other leave situations should also be reviewed on a case by case basis.   

In summary, the Departments have issued guidance specifically related to Hurricane Harvey; however, we anticipate additional guidance associated with Irma as well.  The bottom line is that employers, health plans, and applicable vendors will need to act reasonably when administering the health plans (i.e., processing claims and appeals, issuing notices such as COBRA notices, etc.) and take into consideration the locations and entities that were impacted and allow grace periods or other relief as applicable.

Important Press Releases and Relevant Guidance:
- U.S. Department of Labor Issues Compliance Guidance For Employee Benefit Plans Impacted by Hurricane Harvey
- Secretary Acosta Joins Vice President Pence in Texas
- FAQs for Participants and Beneficiaries Following Hurricane Harvey
- Hurricane Harvey & HIPAA Bulletin: Limited Waiver of HIPAA Sanctions and Penalties During a Declared Emergency


The Rise of Paid Family Leave Laws & Their Impact on Self-Funded Plans
By Brady Bizarro, Esq.
    
Most employers and workers alike are familiar with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”). The law requires employers to provide twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for an employee’s own serious health condition, for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a spouse, parent, or child with an illness. Importantly, the law also requires employers to maintain group health benefits for employees who take FMLA leave. The FMLA, like most other federal laws, applies whether an employer’s health plan is fully insured or self-funded.

As of this writing, five states have passed laws going beyond the FMLA, granting eligible employees paid family leave. They are California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York. Rhode Island law requires four weeks of paid leave, California and New Jersey each offer six weeks of paid leave, and Washington offers up to twelve weeks per year. Beginning on January 1, 2018, the New York Paid Family Leave Benefits Law (“PFL”) will take effect and New York State will also begin providing employees in the state with paid family leave. The law will be phased in over four years and will eventually provide twelve weeks of paid family leave to employees; which is one the longest leave periods in the country.

What makes the PFL unique is not just that it requires employers to provide twelve weeks of paid family leave; it also requires employers to continue health insurance coverage to employees out on leave. While this state-mandated employer obligation would seem to be preempted by ERISA, the case law on this point is unsettled.

In 2005, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) seemed to put this issue to rest in an advisory opinion on the applicability of leave substitution provisions of the Washington State Family Care Act (“FCA”) to employee benefit plans. The FCA permits employees entitled to sick leave or other paid time off to use that paid time off to care for certain relatives of the employee who had health conditions or medical emergencies. As part of its analysis, the DOL analyzed section 401(b) of the FMLA, which provides that state family leave laws at least as generous as the FMLA are not preempted by “this Act or any amendment made by this Act.” 29 U.S.C. § 2651(b). As a result of the department’s guidance, it appeared as if state family leave laws enjoyed special protections from ERISA preemption.

In 2014, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considered the same issue and reached the opposite conclusion. In Sherfel v. Newson, 768 F.3d 561 (2014), the Court found that the leave substitution provisions of Wisconsin’s FMLA sufficiently “related to” an ERISA plan such that they were preempted by ERISA. Specifically, the Court held that the state law would “mandate the payment of benefits contrary to the [written] terms of an ERISA plan,” thus undermining one of ERISA’s chief purposes; achieving a uniform administrative scheme for employers. Newson, at 564. As part of its analysis of the preemption issue, the Court also dismissed the legislative history relied upon by the DOL in an uncommonly blunt (and borderline satirical) manner. Considering whether legislators intended to preclude the preemption of state family leave laws by ERISA, the Court observed, “[T]he idea that this colloquy ever passed the lips of any Senator is an obvious fiction. Colloquies of this sort get inserted into the Congressional Record all the time, usually at the request of a lobbyist…” Newson, at 570.

In ruling that a state family leave law was preempted by ERISA, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals aligned itself with the U.S. Supreme Court’s earlier jurisprudence on preemption. It remains to be seen how other Circuit Courts will address similar challenges to state leave laws; especially those that mandate continuation of coverage. Still, paid family leave is one of the few policies in Washington, D.C. that has bipartisan support, and employers should expect to see more states pass laws akin to New York’s Paid Family Leave Act.


Can FMLA leave be involuntary? Court punts
A federal court hearing an FMLA interference case has sidestepped deciding whether it is legal for an employer to place an employee on involuntary FMLA leave.

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9 Secrets For Coordinating Leave Under the FMLA and ADA
HR professionals may often see the following scenario: An employee is granted FMLA leave to treat a serious health condition that poses long-term restrictions and limitations; 12 weeks pass; the employee fails to return to work; company terminates employee under a “no-fault” absence policy. The employer granted the full 12 weeks allowed by the FMLA, so it is free to terminate, right?