Since it was introduced in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has been ever-evolving in its application. Its evolution is usually rooted in court cases that erupt between employees and their employers when one of them neglected to adhere to the rules of the FMLA, or there is the perception that this happened.
The following 3 FMLA rulings are just some of the many that have played a significant role in how the legislation is managed today, and how HR departments will manage leave requests in the future.
1. In Loco Parentis
What happened: In Coutard v. Municipal Credit Union, Coutard sued his former employer for FMLA interference after he was denied leave to care for his grandfather. At the time of requesting leave, Coutard didn’t specify that his grandfather had raised him as a child. Even though his request was denied, Coutard took the time off and was subsequently fired after missing 2 consecutive days of work. Though the district court initially denied the claim, the second circuit court of appeals sided with the employee. They argued that the employer had a duty to inquire as to the nature of the relationship between the employee and the grandparent, as it in fact fell under in loco parentis.
What you should do: Before denying a request for leave to care for a family member, ensure that you inquire into the nature of the relationship between your employee and the individual that he or she is requesting to care for. The Department of Labor (DOL)’s rule of in loco parentis applies to anyone who was an essential parent to a child in terms of day-to-day responsibilities of care or financial support; even if they’re not related.
Remember: open communication is one of the cornerstones of remaining FMLA compliant!
2. Redefining 'Spouse'
What happened: The battle for marriage equality is long-running, so for the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on the major breakthroughs of the past couple years.
In 2013, in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which defined marriage as between one man and one woman. This made it clear that the FMLA’s definition of spouse should include same sex couples. However, as same-sex marriage was still not legal across all states, it became a large gray area for leave managers.
In March of 2015, the Department of Labor (DOL) issued their final rule, which held that marriage was based on a place of celebration rule, rather than place of residence. This extended FMLA rights to same-sex couples, regardless of whether their marriage was recognized in their state.
Another major breakthrough came in June of 2015 with Obergefell v. Hodges, when the US Supreme Court decided that all states must allow same-sex marriage based on the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. This meant that HR and Leave Managers no longer had to worry about deciphering where the employee had been married versus where they lived, and if their spouse was legally covered... It was now universal.
The Implications: This ruling also meant that employers in states that previously didn’t recognize same-sex marriage would need to change their internal policies and re-examine their medical benefits, retirement plans, and the like, to extend spousal rights. In many ways, it became much easier to manage leave because it eliminated the gray area.
What you should know: Employers who are self-insured are not required to offer spousal coverage or to extend it to same-sex couples. That said, excluding some employees from the benefits package based on their sexual orientation can open up disputes on sexual orientation discrimination.
Another thing to consider is that before the ruling, many employers were already offering similar leaves to employees with a significant other of the same sex in order to ensure they were treating all employees fairly. However, these employers should be careful because if they do not change the policy back to the FMLA inclusive coverage, an employee with a same-sex spouse could technically receive more leave than other employees.
3. Interacting With An Employee On Leave
What happened: In Vess v. Select Medical Corporation, Vess claimed that her employer asked her to do extensive work while on FMLA leave, including fielding calls regarding scheduling matters, answering calls about specific work duties, completing training and inputting data. When she returned to work she was fired shortly after for misconduct and filed her claim for FMLA rights violations.
What you should know: The court case helped spell out for employers what they may ask of their employees while they are out on FMLA leave, which includes the transmission of institutional knowledge to new staff, the provision of passwords, asking for closure on completed tasks, and asking for recommendations of employees who can help fill voids.
Keep these rulings in mind when you are managing your team so that you remain compliant! If you need a bit of help in this area, there are technology solutions that are constantly kept up-to-date with the latest changes in FMLA policy, to keep you in the clear.