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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Is it possible that one-fifth of companies violate the FMLA?

If you believe a headline from yesterday's Cleveland Plain Dealer, 20% of employers violate the FMLA. Or, at least that is what a recent study conducted by the Families and Work Institute concluded:

"There are so many reasons you could imagine an employer not complying," said Kate Kahan, director of work and family programs for the National Partnership for Women and Families. "The bottom line is the same, which is the employee loses out. This is such basic protection that it's horrible." ...

When employees are shortchanged, researchers and employment lawyers said, a combination of factors is usually to blame.

The troubled economy may discourage workers from challenging policies that deny them the full leave, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. It's rare that the Labor Department independently investigates leave compliance; usually, an employee must file a complaint or lawsuit.

Employers may not know about the 15-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act, or they may not properly understand it, Galinsky and others said. The law applies to any employer with 50 or more workers in one area.

"I really don't think there's a law out there that is more confusing and causes more problems for employers than Family Leave," said Richard Meneghello, a partner in the Portland, Ore., office of Fisher & Phillips, a national employment law firm. He expressed surprise that the noncompliance rate wasn't higher than the report's 20 percent.

A full copy of the report by the Families and Work Institute is available for download: 2008 National Study of Employers (NSE).

Department of Labor spokesperson Dolline Hatchett disagrees with the report: "We know of no independent verification of their number. Compliance rates are hard to verify without sophisticated sampling techniques, and there is insufficient data in their analysis to allow one to assess an employer's compliance with the law."

Whether true or not, one thing is certain - managing FMLA leave programs is one of the most difficult tasks facing HR professionals and other management. The FMLA has layers upon layers of requirements that must be followed, both in determining whether one is eligible for leave, in certifying and granting the leave, and in administering the leave and eventual return to work. These protocols become exponentially more complicated when an employee takes leave intermittently instead contiguously. Even for those employers who think they are comfortable with the FMLA, earlier this year the Department of Labor published its proposed new FMLA regulations, adding 477 pages of new and amended responsibilities.

Nevertheless, this study points out one truism, not only about the FMLA but employment law in general. Education is crucial. There are a wealth of seminars available all over the country on every employment law issue imaginable. If your organization is big enough, consider bringing in a lawyer to do some specialized training sessions for your personnel. And, most importantly, when in doubt pick up the phone and call someone who can give you an answer to your question. Ignorance is not an excuse if a company violates the FMLA or any other employment law.

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