On March 14, 2019, the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued an opinion letter (FMLA2019-1-A) after being asked “whether an employer may delay designating paid leave as Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave or permit employees to expand their FMLA leave beyond the statutory 12-week entitlement.” On the first question, whether an employer may delay designation of FMLA leave, the DOL was of the opinion that an employer may not do so. As to the second question, whether an employer may expand FMLA leave beyond the statutory 12-week entitlement, the DOL was similarly of the opinion that an employer may not do so.
The Question to the DOL
In being asked to issue the opinion, the inquiring party represented to the DOL that some employers “voluntarily permit employees to exhaust some or all of the available paid sick (or other) leave prior to designating leave as FMLA-qualifying, even when the leave is clearly FMLA-qualifying.” The inquiring party represented that employers may be relying on 29 C.F.R. § 825.700, which states in relevant part that “an employer must observe any employee benefit or program that provides greater family and medical leave rights to employees than the rights provided by the FMLA.”
For obvious reasons, it makes sense that an employer would occasionally be approached by an employee who knows that they will need more than 12 weeks of total leave to attend to his or her serious health condition or that of their family member. Other employees may even have offered to donate leave time to this employee in order to allow him or her to take additional time off of work. And, some employers have policies or practices that go above and beyond the FMLA in order to assist employees dealing with difficult medical situations.
The Legal Issues
Under the FMLA, employees of covered employers (those employers employing 50 or more employees within 75 miles of an employee’s workplace) are eligible to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for specified medical reasons for themselves or their qualified family members. An employer may require the employee (or the employee may elect) to “substitute” accrued paid leave to cover part of the unpaid FMLA entitlement period, in order to be compensated for that portion of the unpaid FMLA leave. In any event, the employer must properly designate FMLA time as such.
In order to designate FMLA time as FMLA time, an employer must give notice of the FMLA designation to the employee under 29 C.F.R. § 825.300(d)(1). This Designation Notice is required within five business days after the employer “has enough information to determine whether the leave is being taken for a FMLA-qualifying reason.” Importantly, under the regulations, failure to provide the required notice may constitute an interference with, restraint of, or denial of the employee’s FMLA rights.
Under 29 C.F.R. § 825.700, nothing prevents employers from adopting leave policies more generous than the floor of the FMLA. Further, for those small businesses that are not covered by the FMLA, there is nothing preventing employers from being more generous than the FMLA. That being said, an employer may not designate more than 12 weeks of leave as FMLA-protected.
As an initial matter, the DOL noted that an employer is prohibited from delaying designation of FMLA-qualifying leave as such. This is because once an employee communicates a need to take leave for an FMLA-qualifying reason, neither the employee nor the employer may decline FMLA protection for that leave. Even if the employee never specifically states that the leave is under the FMLA, if the employer is qualified—again, generally more than 50 employees in that geographic area—and the employer has knowledge of facts that indicates the leave is FMLA-qualifying, the employer must provide notice of FMLA designation to the employee within five business days.
Thus, even if the employee asks the employer to wait to start the clock under the FMLA, the employer is not allowed to do so. Once the employer knows that the leave will be FMLA-qualifying, the employer must designate the leave as FMLA leave.
As to the question of whether an employer may provide more than 12 weeks of FMLA leave, the DOL noted that aside from the military caregiver leave exception (which provides 26 weeks of FMLA leave), the FMLA provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Employers are not prohibited from being more generous with their employees than required by the FMLA. However, being more generous does not make the additional leave covered by the FMLA or subject to the protections provided for therein. While the employer may continue to provide unpaid leave after the 12 weeks of FMLA leave have been exhausted, that leave is not deemed “FMLA leave” in the strict sense of FMLA entitlement.
For many South Dakota small businesses, the FMLA does not apply because there are simply not enough employees for the FMLA to be applicable. For those employers that are covered by the FMLA, according to the DOL, once an employee’s leave is FMLA-qualifying, it must be so designated. The opinion letter clearly leaves no wiggle room for an employer to avoid application of the FMLA, even if the employee prefers to delay or decline FMLA-leave designation. It is still acceptable for employers to be generous and to offer any additional leave beyond what the FMLA provides (such as non-FMLA medical leave), although such additional leave will not be considered actual FMLA leave. In addition, paid leave can be used to provide compensation during an otherwise unpaid FMLA leave (such as short-term disability), but such paid leave will run concurrently with the FMLA leave.
Keep in mind that DOL Opinion Letters do not have the same force and effect of law the way that a statute, regulation or court decision does. However, courts do turn to administrative agencies for help and guidance in interpreting the law. Therefore, South Dakota employers who are subject to compliance with the FMLA are well-advised to follow the guidance in this DOL opinion letter. Practical tips include training managers and supervisors on the FMLA rules, particularly since individual liability for violations exists. Also, employers need to ensure that their policies and procedures are up-to-date, consistent and regularly followed. In this way, South Dakota employers will be ensuring legal compliance, as well as fair treatment of all their employees.