Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employees are required to provide their employer with notice that they need to take a leave that may be covered by the FMLA. Employees are not, however, required to specifically mention that they are asking for FMLA-covered leave when submitting their requests. Unfortunately, the language of the FMLA does not provide employers with specific guidelines for when they have actually received notice of FMLA leave needs, and what information is required for such notice. Instead, employees need only to provide sufficient information in order for the employer to determine that the leave may be covered by the FMLA.
So how do employers know when they have received sufficient information to know that the leave may be covered? The answer is simple: they don’t. Different leave requests can arise from a multitude of situations. Without set guidelines from the Federal Department of Labor on how to review requests, employers are left to muddle through the limited information they are given to determine if there’s even a slight chance that the leave falls under the FMLA.
What is “Sufficient?”
Employees are entitled to privacy rights, especially when it comes to medical information. Therefore, the type and extent of information that an employer may demand when reviewing leave requests is limited. From the little information that is received, employers must attempt to navigate federal law in order to determine whether the leave might be covered under the FMLA.
The information that employees provide may not give the employer the entire picture. In lieu of specifics, employers must take into account what they know about the employee and any additional circumstances that may have arisen to create a need for medical leave. In some instances, courts have held that complaints from an employee, such as repeatedly stating something is painful, is sufficient for an employer to know that FMLA leave might be required. Additionally, if an employee has taken FMLA leave in the past, an employer should be more inclined to understand that the same employee may request FMLA leave in the future.
Timing is Everything
Generally speaking, when an employee knows of a need for leave, he or she must provide notice of FMLA leave 30 days prior to the start of the leave. In emergency situations, or other instances where advance notice is not possible, the employee must provide notice as soon as possible and practical.
As soon as an employer has sufficient information, response to the employee’s request is required within five days. Additionally, once an FMLA leave request is made, employers must immediately begin the FMLA leave process by providing necessary notifications and performing eligibility checks. Failure to perform one’s duties in a timely manner may create liability under FMLA interference claims, which can lead to payment of lost back pay, lost front pay, liquidated damages, or punitive damages.
Having knowledge and understanding of an employer’s duties under the FMLA is essential for compliance. Employers should not assume that an employee does not need FMLA leave just because he or she did not specifically request it. Prudent employers look at the big picture whenever an employee makes a request for leave.