Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) issues combine three of HR professionals’ most detested things: paperwork, interpreting laws, and making tough calls that affect employees. The reason these issues are so tricky is that FMLA law doesn’t provide clear answers to every possible situation. This means that HR professionals have to rely on what the FMLA does say, previous rulings and opinions, and our own experience.

It can get a bit dicey when you are determining if employees are eligible, how much time they’re eligible for, and, most commonly, which type of leave they should receive. And these decisions have a significant impact on employees far beyond pay or sick leave hours—a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey reported that unfavorable FMLA decisions have a significant impact on employee morale and productivity as well.

The same survey also revealed that 51 percent of HR professionals have experienced significant challenges in implementing FMLA provisions. This is probably no surprise if you’ve spent any amount of time working with the FMLA at your organization.

Excessive Use of Intermittent Leave

Many HR professionals would agree that intermittent leave is one of the most difficult aspects of FMLA to manage because many of the conditions that qualify for intermittent leave are hard to prove and extremely unpredictable. For instance, chronic back pain can legitimately flare up at any time, but it is also one of the easiest medical conditions to falsify. Certification and recertification can certainly help with legitimizing intermittent-leave-qualifying medical conditions, but this is one of the biggest areas of concern for employers. While there are always ways for employees to work around the regulations, holding them accountable is often enough to curb excessive use.

How to Deal with Suspected Abuse

The fact that employees may abuse FMLA is a completely separate problem from how employers should handle that abuse. This is because employers are often not sure what the legal parameters are for questioning medical issues and the legitimacy of specific instances.

As an employer, you do have the right to question the legitimacy. It can be a sensitive topic but asking specific questions about what the medical issue is that is keeping employees home, probing for whether or not they can perform modified duties, whether it’s a recurring issue, or when they last saw a doctor, can also lead to questions about certification or recertification. You also have the right to terminate employees if you honestly believe they have abused FMLA, for instance, to take a vacation. Two notable court cases had the courts siding with the employer when employees took sick leave in conjunction with vacation time.

One important thing to remember as you handle suspected abuse is to be consistent across the company in your certification requirements, in order to avoid being accused of discrimination. For example, if you request recertification from one employee, you must request it from all employees utilizing intermittent leave for a similar time period, and document each instance. Although these situations can be tough, if you can treat the employees respectfully and sensitively, you can hold them accountable without causing bigger problems.

What other FMLA issues do you deal with? Let us know in the comments section below.

Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, is an author, speaker, Human Resources professional, and workplace social media expert who has a passion for recruiting, training, and all things social media. She is the president and CEO of Xceptional HR, and a leader in the HR community with more than 12 years of industry experience. The author of Tweet This! Twitter for Business, Jessica was named by HR Examiner as the second most influential recruiter on the Internet and the seventh most powerful woman on Twitter. She is a columnist for both SmartBrief and The Huffington Post, in addition to Blogging4Jobs and Human Resources One on One. Jessica has been interviewed for professional articles in CIO Magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, SHRM’s HR Magazine, and on CBS. Jessica earned a Senior Professional in Human Resources designation in 2008, and holds a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Business from Kansas State University. Originally from a small town in Kansas, Jessica currently lives near Oklahoma City with her husband, Greg and daughter, Ryleigh.

2 Comments

  • Avatar Anna Lewis says:

    From time to time every employee doesn’t feel like going to work, and FMLA seems like the best possible excuse. But if their manager requires a medical certificate and ask them about the reasons, duration and consequences for their duties every time they use such excuse, their abuse of FLMA may thin out with time.

  • Avatar Paula says:

    What about an employee who has intermittent FMLA because they need to help out their mother and every week they need to leave early, come in late saying they have “business” to take care of and then I find out she’s at the local pub instead. Everytime there’s a snowstorm coming she would tell me a couple of days ahead that she would be out those days due to “business” she needed to take care of. I know this employee is blatantly abusing her FMLA, any suggestions??

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