While you may not need a masters in FMLA, spotting leave requests can be tough


Happy belated Labor Day.

Did you have a nice weekend? My family took a little road trip down to Baltimore on Sunday for baseball game. While tempted to leave my first-born behind for wearing a Yankees t-shirt and hat — where did I go wrong as a parent? —  I nonetheless enjoyed America’s Pastime and my son left Oriole Park at Camden Yards with a little something extra.

Well, back to boring reality. It’s FMLA time.

When an employee requests FMLA without saying F-M-L-A.

The Family and Medical Leave Act is the federal law that gives eligible employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a 12-month period for certain family and medical reasons. I’ve blogged before (here) that employees needing leave under the FMLA don’t have those say those letters — F-M-L-A — to exercise their rights under the Act. Rather, an employee only needs to communicate enough information so that the employer understands that the need for covered leave.

An employee communicating to one’s boss that he is experiencing chest pains at work, should be enough. That’s a fairly bright-line example. At the other end of the spectrum, an employee asking a supervisor to leave work early because she feels sick would not be enough to put an employer on notice of the need for covered FMLA leave. That’s because FMLA coverage is available for a “serious health condition,” not a generic-sounding illness.

It’s the tweeners that cause the most trouble. For example, what about when an employee tells a manager that there is “something bad wrong with me,” and must leave work? Is that enough?

You may need to consider the context. In this recent opinion, the plaintiff told his manager there is “something bad wrong with me.”Plus, he mentioned that he had blood in his stool, and that he was going to the hospital or health department. Thus, when the employer fired the plaintiff without further consideration of the plaintiff’s health, it set up a tenable FMLA interference claim. Indeed, had the company inquired further, it may have learned about the plaintiff’s chronic, albeit episodic, serious health condition (moderate diverticulitis).

Although, a jury may consider it curious that the plaintiff’s abrupt exit from work that day coincided with the company’s busiest day of the year. Plus, the plaintiff did not go to the hospital or health department after leaving work, nor did he even go directly home. Instead, the plaintiff walked from work to a local diner, which took approximately 20 minutes. At the diner, he had a cup of coffee with his Uncle Jim, who then drove plaintiff home.

Employer takeaways.

  1. It all starts with education. If you are a covered employer, you need an FMLA policy.
  2. Train your employees and managers on the FMLA policy. Make sure that your employees know how the leave-request process works, and that your managers know how to identify FMLA requests — especially, when the letters F-M-L-A are never used.
  3. Just because an employee requests FMLA doesn’t mean that he is entitled to it. Follow all of the steps, including obtaining a completed medical certification to support the leave request.
“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”
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