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The Twists and Turns of FMLA Eligibility
Lori Welty

The Twists and Turns of FMLA Eligibility

Parts of the FMLA can be fairly complicated, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that an employee isn’t eligible for FMLA protections until he or she has met the eligibility requirements (e.g., having been employed for at least 1,250 hours during the 12-month period immediately preceding the start of the leave). Not so fast, said the 11th Circuit in Pereda v. Brookdale Senior Living Cmtys., Inc., which opened the eligibility door a crack back in 2012. And more recently, on April 13, 2017, a federal district court in Oregon nudged that door open just a bit wider when it issued the decision in Johnson v. Jondy Chemicals, Inc., 2017 WL 1371271 (D. Or. 4/13/2017).

For those of you who don’t have the Pereda case at your fingertips, a quick refresher: In Pereda, the employee notified her employer she would be taking FMLA leave for the birth of her child on or about Nov. 30, 2009. At the time of her request, she had not yet met the eligibility requirements to take FMLA leave, but she would have become eligible by her due date. The court held that “because the FMLA requires notice in advance of future leave, employees are protected from interference prior to the occurrence of a triggering event, such as the birth of a child.” Thus, an employee can maintain an FMLA interference claim even though at the time of the termination, she was not an “eligible employee” with respect to the 12-month employment requirement.

The Johnson case present us with the intersection of another wrinkle. Recall that if an employee becomes FMLA-eligible during a leave (by meeting the 12-month requirement), the beginning of the leave must be designated as non-FMLA leave while the portion of the leave after the employee meets FMLA eligibility requirements would be designated as FMLA. 29 C.F.R. § 825.110(d). The Johnson case combines the prescience of the Pereda case with the hindsight of this provision to create a new animal: in some circumstances–despite the fact that the employee is not eligible for FMLA at the time of the request or at the time the leave is to begin–an employee’s request for leave could trigger FMLA protections if, at some point in time during the leave, the employee will meet the 12 months of employment eligibility requirement. The Court considered this hypothetical and concluded “the fact that an employee’s treatment commences pre-eligibility…does not, in and of itself, bar the employee’s rights in subsequent FMLA leave for the same treatment during the same contiguous absence…” The court held that an employee who notifies the employer of the need for treatment that will extend into a period of time in which the employee will be FMLA-eligible is entitled to FMLA-protected leave for that period. Therefore, any adverse treatment based on the leave request could be grounds for the employee to claim the employer interfered with his right to FMLA leave.

In the case at hand, the Court was not so sure that the employee had demonstrated that FMLA would have applied to a portion of the leave, because the claim did not specify whether the leave would have extended beyond the employee’s FMLA-eligibility date. As a result, the Court dismissed the claim; leaving open the possibility the employee could refile with more facts to support the claim.

Concerned about navigating your way through complex leave administration issues? Reed Group has options. We offer both outsourced and software solutions for clients with complex and/or multi-state employee populations. To learn more about ReedGroup’s products and services visit reedgroup.com.

Top 3 Notable ADA Cases in 2017, So Far
Ashlee Brennan

Top 3 Notable ADA Cases in 2017, So Far

Only three months in to the new year and we have already witnessed a handful of cases where an employee has asserted discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Two of these cases focus heavily on an employee’s essential job functions and whether the requested accommodations were reasonable. The third focuses on overcoming the hurdle of establishing that an employee is, in fact, disabled under the ADA. All three cases resulted favorably for employers.

In Whitaker v. Wisconsin Dep’t of Health Servs., No. 16-1807, 2017 WL 745600 (7th Cir. Feb. 27, 2017), Whitaker worked as a corrections officer for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, eventually transitioning into other positions due to a back injury. Her most recent position relevant to her case was that of an economic support specialist in the Department’s Income Maintenance Program. In this role, Whitaker’s job duties included processing applications for benefits, answering phone calls, and general case management, all requiring regular attendance.

Whitaker exhausted her available FMLA leave for her medical condition as well as a 30-day unpaid leave to care for her father and due to her own personal illness. Whitaker was informed by the Department that if she failed to return to work upon the conclusion of the 30-day leave, the termination process would begin. Whitaker did not return to work on her expected date but did submit notes from her doctor requesting additional time off for a medical leave. The notes did not provide any detail on her condition, course of treatment, or estimated recovery. Whitaker continued to assert she was unable to return to work and the Department terminated her employment. Whitaker sued, claiming the Department should have considered her request for an accommodation of unpaid leave rather than terminate her.

The court found that Whitaker was unable to establish that she was an “otherwise qualified” employee as required by the ADA as she provided no proof that she could fulfil the requirement of regular attendance, even with an accommodation. Whitaker argued that if she had been given additional leave as an accommodation, she could return to work on a regular basis. Consistent with other cases we have seen, the Seventh Circuit did not find this argument persuasive. Rather, the court found this accommodation to amount to an open-ended leave request, which was not reasonable and would have imposed an undue burden on the department.

Like Whitaker, Bagwell v. Morgan Cty. Comm’n, No. 15-15274, 2017 WL 192694 (11th Cir. Jan. 18, 2017), analyzes an employee’s essential job functions and whether an employee’s request to accommodate those essential job functions is reasonable.

Bagwell was a County groundskeeper whose essential job functions included tasks necessary to maintain and upkeep city parks, such as traversing uneven and wet surfaces, standing, and walking. Due to stamina and endurance issues caused by a leg injury, she was unable to safely perform these functions consistently, even with the assistance of an accommodation. It was established that Bagwell could only tolerate walking and standing for one-third of her shift. Although some equipment accommodations would reduce related difficulties, Bagwell was unable to perform the essential job functions of the position, with or without accommodations; thus, the court found that Bagwell was not an “otherwise qualified” employee. Additionally, the court found that if the County were to consider an accommodation, it would be a significant one, requiring a co-groundskeeper or hiring a third-party service to complete the work. Finding in favor of the employer, the court held that this type of accommodation would be unreasonable as it was the duty of the groundskeeper to perform such work.

Two employer tips stand out in these cases:

  1. Be sure to keep your job descriptions up to date and accurate. Regular attendance is often an essential job function and the courts rely heavily on employers’ job descriptions to establish the essential functions of a job.
  2. The courts continue to side with employers when an employee is requesting indefinite leave under the ADA, which is considered unreasonable and burdensome to the employer.

The third notable ADA case of 2017 brings us to Alston v. Park Pleasant, Inc., No. 16-1464, 2017 WL 627381 (3d Cir. Feb. 15, 2017). In 2011, Park Pleasant hired Alston to be the Director of Nursing at an adult care facility; one year later, Alston was having significant performance issues. Shortly after meeting with her HR director to discuss these issues, Alston missed work to have a biopsy and was diagnosed with early-stage DCIS (a form of breast cancer). Alston’s performance continued to be in question and she was terminated in early August 2012. Upon termination, Alston sued, claiming employment discrimination under the ADA.

To establish a claim for discrimination under the ADA, Alston was required to demonstrate that she was a disabled person within the meaning of the ADA. The court relied on 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(j)(1)(iv) in concluding that the determination of whether an employee is disabled under the ADA requires an individualized assessment to analyze whether the employee’s impairment ‘substantially limits a major life activity.’ Throughout the case, Alston failed to provide enough evidence to prove she had a disability. The court did note that cancer generally would qualify as a disability; however, based on the individualized assessment for Alston, there was no argument or proof that this condition limited any of her major life activities. Therefore, the court found that Alston failed to establish she was disabled under the ADA and dismissed her discrimination claim.

This case goes back to the basics, but it reminds employers that an individualized assessment of each employee and his or her ailment(s) or condition(s) is required to establish whether the employee is considered disabled under the ADA and thus entitled to the protections afforded by the act.

It’s evident that ADA discrimination cases continue to be brought by disgruntled employees. To avoid potential risks in litigation:

  • make sure your job descriptions are specific and in writing;
  • follow the interactive process; and
  • evaluate employees on an individual basis.

Outsourcing to a third-party administrator that specializes in ADA management, such as ReedGroup, will keep you ahead of the curve and compliant on all ADA matters. For more information, check out our solutions here.

Crossing The Finish Line: New York PFL Final Regulations
Ashlee Brennan

Crossing The Finish Line: New York PFL Final Regulations

On Wednesday, July 19, New York adopted final Paid Family Leave law (NY PFL) regulations, which take effect immediately. Beginning January 1, 2018, NY PFL will provide eight weeks of benefits at 50% salary rate, with increased benefits over the next four years, to employees who need to miss work:

  • to care for a family member with a serious health condition;
  • to bond with a newborn or newly placed foster or adopted child; or
  • due to a qualifying exigency arising from a family member’s military service.

For background on this law, please review ReedGroup’s prior posts found here. After two rounds of public comments, the board issued the final regulations, along with a discussion regarding the comments it received. Highlights include:

PFL Definitions (Section 355)

Clarification has been provided to confirm that a day in which an employer is closed or shut-down is still considered a day of paid family leave.

The Workers’ Compensation Board also received several comments requesting clarification to the definition of eligible employee, specifically whether employees living outside of NY are eligible for PFL benefits. The Board clarified that an employee is eligible for NY PFL if some of his/her work is based in or controlled from New York or if the employee lives in New York. (WCL § 201(6)(C))).

The Board will provide additional examples and clarity on its webpage as eligibility issues arise.

Eligibility (Subpart 380-2)

The regulations allow NY PFL to be funded by employee payroll deductions. The Board has clarified that employers may begin deductions as of July 1, 2017, but are not required to. Additionally, the Board received several comments asking the board to clarify that the withheld payroll deductions cannot be used for a purpose other than NY PFL; this was confirmed.

The Board received and responded to several inquiries about how the regulations apply to part-time employees and those with irregular work schedules. Specifically, the Board reiterated that employees who regularly work less than 20 hours per week become eligible for paid family leave on the 175th day of such employment, and employees who work 20 or more hours per week become eligible for paid family leave on the 26th consecutive work week of employment. The Board further clarified that “such consecutive weeks may be tolled during periods of absence that are due to the nature of that employment, such as semester breaks, and when employment is not terminated during those periods of absence.”

The final regulations include amendments to this section that provide calculations for computing an employee’s PFL benefit rate when taken in single-day increments. The Board has confirmed that an employee’s average weekly wage can include fractions to properly convert the wages from weekly to daily.

Although no changes were made to the regulations, the Board clarified that disability leave taken in 2017 will count toward an employee’s maximum duration of PFL and disability benefits in a 52-week period, as the 52-week period is computed retroactively from each day leave is requested. Therefore, during the first year of PFL implementation (2018), the 52-week look-back period will extend into 2017.

The waiver provision, subpart 280-2.6(a), was amended to state that employers ‘shall’ provide employees who qualify to sign a PFL waiver rather than ‘may,’ making it a requirement rather than an option. However, the decision whether to waive remains with the employee.

Reinstatement (Subpart 380-8)

The Board was asked to clarify what a same or comparable position means within the regulations and whether it is intended to mirror ‘same or equivalent’ under the FMLA. The Board states it will issue further guidance on this but made no changes to the regulation.

What Employers Must Do Now

Covered New York employers should have a compliant PFL plan in place and ready to go by January 1, 2018. Keep in mind that the state of New York does not offer a state-administered plan. All affected employers are responsible for creating a plan that is either self insured or insured by a third party.

What ReedGroup Is Doing

If you are using ReedGroup’s leave management services or software we are:

  • preparing to implement NY PFL administration for employers who self insure;
  • training staff; and
  • updating our internal and external compliance materials, including LeaveAdvisor™.

We at ReedGroup would love to share our resources with you. Please contact us if you’re interested in NY PFL or other absence management services.

The Twists and Turns of FMLA Eligibility
Lori Welty

The Twists and Turns of FMLA Eligibility

Parts of the FMLA can be fairly complicated, but if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that an employee isn’t eligible for FMLA protections until he or she has met the eligibility requirements (e.g., having been employed for at least 1,250 hours during the...

read more
Top 3 Notable ADA Cases in 2017, So Far
Ashlee Brennan

Top 3 Notable ADA Cases in 2017, So Far

Only three months in to the new year and we have already witnessed a handful of cases where an employee has asserted discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Two of these cases focus heavily on an employee’s essential job functions and whether...

read more