Thursday, September 18, 2008

A primer on intermittent FMLA leave

Is there anything more frustrating for HR professionals than intermittent leave under the FMLA? While I can't ease that frustration, I can provide short primer on the rules of games that must be followed.

What is intermittent leave and when does it have to be provided?

The FMLA provides that leave may be taken "intermittently" in the following circumstances:

  • When medically necessary for planned or unanticipated medical
    treatment of a serious health condition.
  • For recovery from treatment of a serious health condition.
  • For recovery from a serious health condition.
  • To provide care or psychological comfort to an immediate family member with a serious health condition.

Examples of intermittent leave include leave taken on an occasional basis for medical appointments, or leave taken several days at a time spread over a period of six months, such as for chemotherapy.

Treatment by a health care provider is not necessary if the employee or family member is incapacitated or unable to perform the essential functions of the position because of a chronic serious health condition.

Intermittent leave is not available after the birth or placement of a child for adoption or foster care, unless the employer agrees. A pregnant employee, however, is allowed to take leave intermittently for prenatal examinations or for her own condition, such as for periods of severe morning sickness.

May an employer transfer an employee to an "alternative position" to accommodate intermittent leave?

The short answer is yes, if the intermittent leave is foreseeable based on planned medical treatment for the employee or a family member. The alternate position must have equivalent pay and benefits, but not necessarily equivalent duties. The employer may increase the pay and benefits of an existing alternative position to make it equivalent, or may transfer the employee to a part-time job with the same pay and benefits. When the employee no longer needs to continue on leave and is able to return to full-time work, the employee must be placed in the same or equivalent job as the job he/she left when the leave began.

It should go without saying that retaliation is still illegal, and an employer cannot transfer an employee as a means to discourage the taking of intermittent leave.

How is intermittent leave calculated?

Only the amount of leave actually taken may be counted toward
the 12-week FMLA entitlement. For example, a full-time employee working five days a week, one day off would equal 1/5 of a week of FMLA leave.

If an employee works part-time or a variable schedule, the amount of leave is determined  on a pro rata basis by comparing the new schedule with the employee's normal schedule. For example, if an employee who normally works 30 hours per week works only 20 hours a week, the employee's ten hours of leave would constitute one-third of a week of FMLA leave for each week the employee works the new schedule.

If an employee's schedule varies from week to week, a weekly average of the hours worked over the 12 weeks prior to the beginning of the leave period would be used for calculating the employee's normal workweek.

An employer may limit leave increments to the shortest period of time that the employer's payroll system uses to account for absences or use of leave, provided it is at least one hour. Thus, if a payroll system only tracks time in whole days, that company will have to figure out a way to track intermittent leave by the hour.

May an employer deduct hourly amounts from an employee's salary for intermittent leave taken?

Again, the short answer is yes, but with a huge caveat. Any such deductions to the salary of an exempt employee will severely jeopardize that employee's exemption. Companies must take extreme care in making any deductions from the salaries of exempt employees.