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Managing the FMLA—A Big or Little Challenge

September 1, 1996
James J. Carabetta, director of human resources at Fosdick Corp. in Wallingford, Connecticut, says:
The most effective way to manage FMLA leaves is to not mismanage them. This means HR must comply with notification and posting requirements. For good measure, add the FMLA’s poster text to your handbook or employee manual.

That being addressed, immediately assess all of your employees—exempt and nonexempt—for the effect on the operation during their absence whether for a week, a month or an undetermined length of time. Short leaves should pose no problems. Most employees qualify for some vacation or personal time. A company would be hard pressed to claim a hardship for an employee who requests a leave of a few weeks when that same employee had been suitably covered while on vacation. For longer leaves, the company’s strongest tool is people development. During the assessment of employees, determine who replaces whom during absences. Each employee should be given a goal at his or her first performance review: Help develop your own replacement.

If the company subscribes to a performance management system, part of the expectations should be to help develop a subordinate. If, during the assessment, any position poses a reason for panic, begin training immediately. Understand that not all qualified leaves will be prefaced with a notice. In a larger company, ask department managers to come up with their own action plans for leave replacement and to identify problem areas or positions that would be difficult to cover. Update these plans each time someone is hired or terminated in either key or problem positions.

One of the biggest challenges is scheduling. Just as leaves may come up without notice, requests or needs for leaves may overlap with other leaves, causing short-staffing. Ask for documentation of the need for leave prior to granting it. If scheduling is a problem and the leave request doesn’t appear critical, ask the employee whether the leave can be postponed. If not, perhaps intermittent leave would be acceptable. Whatever is agreed upon, make sure it’s clearly spelled out in the FMLA notification forms.

Compare your state’s leave laws with the federal regulations. The employee will be deemed covered under the regulations that provide the most benefit. If there’s a discrepancy in benefit level between federal and state, state in your notification under which regulations the leave is granted, or explain that the state and federal leaves will run concurrently.

Inspect the practices that are affected by leaves, especially the ones dealing with length of service and periodic reviews. Then obtain legal advice on the administration of such programs. For example, as absurd as it may seem, depending on how your program is worded, an employee who hasn’t been to work in 12 weeks under a qualified leave may qualify for a perfect attendance award.

Lastly, keep accurate records on all leaves. It would be impossible to determine when the employee’s entitlement ends, if there were no record of when it began. Also, there’s a limit to the entitlement. The number and length of an employee’s leaves are significant when the total time approaches 12 weeks. Demand in your notification forms that the employee contact the company periodically with an update and the continued intent to return. And document each contact. Track expenses incurred for each leave in time, training, accommodation or replacement labor. This procedure will become valuable in forecasting the financial impact on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis—once enough historical data is collected.

Finally, HR also should keep all FMLA records apart from the employee’s personnel records, lest it appear that the employee was subject to employment action in which exercising the right for leave was a consideration.

Karen Togno, supervisor, compensation, benefits and payroll at Tekelec, in Calabasas, California, says:
My company is a supplier of advanced diagnostic systems and network switching equipment for the telecommunications marketplace. We have 320 employees across the United States, most of whom are in Calabasas and Morrisville, North Carolina. The remaining employees are in small sales offices in seven other states. Only two of our offices—California and North Carolina—must comply with the FMLA (other offices are too small).

In 1994, we purchased a book from the California Chamber of Commerce, "Family Leave Laws: A Guide for California Employers," that provides sample letters and forms to use in the administration of the plan. We made up individual packages using these sample forms and letters and give a package to each employee who requests a leave and qualifies under the FMLA. There’s even a sample form for documenting the time taken for this leave. We looked at other resources but found this book to be the best information at the best price (about $29) and the most user-friendly.

After doing this research we wrote a formal policy for this Act. Our policy states that any accrued vacation/personal/sick days be substituted until exhausted for any part of the unpaid family and medical leave provided under this policy. We also state that additional vacation/personal/sick time won’t continue to accrue during this leave. All other provisions of the FMLA are included in our policy.

We also made one person in our department responsible for managing FMLA requests. That person became the expert. So when one of our employees requests a leave or inquires about one, our expert can easily answer his or her questions with confidence rather than having to call someone else to find out what to do. Therefore, our employees trust the expert and know our company is following the law and providing them with accurate information.

For us to become experts took research. As a result, we have no problems managing the FMLA. When you know what you’re doing, it becomes very easy.

Personnel Journal, September 1996, Vol. 75, No. 9, p149-150.