Monday, March 9, 2020

Is an employee entitled to FMLA leave to care for the children of a family member with coronavirus?

Among other qualifying reasons, the FMLA allows an eligible employee to take 12 weeks of annual unpaid leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Family member, however, does not mean any family member. It only applies to an employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent.

The FMLA’s definition of “son or daughter” not only includes a biological or adopted child, but also a child of a person standing “in loco parentis” (one who has day-to-day responsibility for caring for a child without a biological or legal relationship to that child).

Suppose, however, an employee’s family member contracts COVID-19. Is that employee entitled to FMLA leave to care for that family member’s minor children during the period of incapacity? According to Brede v. Apple Computer (N.D. Ohio 1/23/2020), the answer is “no.”

Brede, a full-time member of Apple’s Genius Team at one of its Apple Stores, claimed that Apple fired him because he sought FMLA leave as in loco parentis to care for his niece and nephew because of his sister’s serious health condition. According to the court, Brede’s leave was not FMLA-covered.

The flaw in Brede’s FMLA claims on both theories is that … his requested leave to care for those children was not FMLA-qualifying. Brede does not allege that any of the minor children (who would be considered his daughter and sons under in loco parentis) are experiencing a “serious health condition” that requires his care. It is Brede’s sister that has the serious health condition. Even if Brede’s care of the children could be seen, by extension, as care for his sick sister (and Brede cites no legal authority for that proposition), the FMLA does not entitle an employee to take leave to care for a sibling with a serious health condition.

The Brede court got this issue 100% legally correct. Because the FMLA does not provide leave to care for siblings, it also does not provide leave to care for an ill sibling’s children.

In this time international medical crisis, however, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the FMLA is a floor, not a ceiling. Just because the law doesn’t require you to grant a leave of absence to an employee to care for the children of an ill sibling doesn’t mean that you can’t choose to offer such leave. As COVID-19 cases spread, employers are going to have to be nimble and flexible in their responses. The hypothetical spun from the Brede case is but one example of this necessary flexibility.

* Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash