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FMLA Can Be Used as a Warning System to Prevent Costly Absences: Survey

February 26, 2013

By using the Family and Medical Leave Act as an early warning system, employers may be able to predict and prevent costly disability absences, according to a study published Feb. 25 by the Integrated Benefits Institute.

While only 24 percent of employees take FMLA leave, those workers are more likely to use short-term disability leave the following year, the report says. When those employees take short-term disability leave after FMLA leave, the duration of it is six to nine days longer and the likelihood of a later long-term disability claim increases as well.

The report says that because employees are required by the FMLA to inform their employers when they or family members have serious medical conditions, employers have a unique perspective on understanding workers' critical health conditions. By using this information, employers can help prevent further long-term absences by connecting at-risk employees with existing benefits such as employee assistance programs, ergonomic remedies and disease management programs.

The survey states that companies that pay attention to FMLA claims and connect those employees with preventive benefits will be able to minimize costly disability absences, prevent lost revenue opportunities, work disruptions, and the reliance on overtime work and temporary staff to make up for lost labor. Connecting at-risk employees could even prevent the long-term absence of a highly valued talent who would be difficult and expensive to replace.

Employers find it difficult to implement preventive strategies in part because many have an incomplete understanding of how, why and when employees use FMLA, short-term-disability and long-term-disability benefits, according to the survey. "In many ways FMLA gets a bad rap because of the spotlight on questionable claims, and employers usually focus on trying to prevent misuse of leaves," said Thomas Parry, president of the Integrated Benefits Institute, in a news release.

A common complaint by employers is that employees misuse FMLA to give themselves long Friday through Monday weekends, according to the survey. However, the survey's results found employees are no more likely to request a day off on Tuesday than on Friday. Abuse of FMLA is a rare occurrence, the survey states, and employers who focus on trying to catch it risk making tangible improvements to their bottom line.

Max Mihelich is Workforce's editorial intern. Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com