The Family and Medical Leave Act does not require an employee to use the word "FMLA" to request leave under, and invoke the protections of, the FMLA. Instead, an employee only needs to do the following:
For foreseeable leave, an employee only needs to provide "verbal notice sufficient to make the employer aware that the employee needs FMLA-qualifying leave, and the anticipated timing and duration of the leave."
For unforeseeable leave, an employee only needs to provide "sufficient information for an employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request."
In either instance, this informal notification triggers an employer's designation obligations under the FMLA.
How vague can verbal notice by an employee be to trigger an employer to consider the notice a request for FMLA leave? In Wiseman v. Awreys Bakeries LLC (6th Cir. 5/22/13) [pdf], the plaintiff, an employee with a history of back problems, verbally complained that he was "injured" and "couldn't work." The company fired him for unexcused absences, claiming that he provided no explanation or medical reason.
The appellate court reversed the trial court's dismissal of the FMLA claim, finding that an issue of fact existed over whether the employee provided FMLA-qualifying notice. The court held that the employee's verbal statement that he was "injured" and "couldn't work," coupled with the company's knowledge of his history of back injuries and the employee's request to see the company's doctor, could lead a jury to conclude that the employee had invoked the FMLA.
Cases like Wiseman should rarely happen. The FMLA provides protections for employers who, in good faith, doubt whether the FMLA covers an employee's request for time off. When there exists any doubt over whether an employee is seeking time off for a reason that could qualify under the FMLA, there is no harm in treating the request as one for FMLA leave. In fact, an employer has greater protection in an FMLA-covered scenario than not.
If the employer fails to treat the request as one for FMLA leave, the employer assumes all of the risk. If the employer is wrong, and the employee was requesting FMLA leave, an employer is severely limited it its ability to defend an FMLA interference lawsuit.
If, however, the employer treats the request as one for FMLA leave, the employee assumes all of the risk. The FMLA provides an employer tools to verify the legitimacy of the request. The employer can (and should) require that the employee provide a medical certification justifying the need for the FMLA leave. Moreover, if the employer doubts the initial certification, it can require a second (and, sometimes, even a third) medical opinion. If the employer ultimately concludes that the leave does not qualify under the FMLA, it can retroactively deny the leave and treat all intervening absences as unexcused, which usually results in termination.