Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of presenting on complex FMLA issues at the American Bar Association’s Annual Labor and Employment conference. During the session, entitled “The FMLA 20 Years Later,” we covered key FMLA notice and medical certification issues and other difficult FMLA scenarios.

Notably, one of my co-panelists, Andrea Appel, Regional Counsel for Civil Rights in the Department of Labor’s Philadelphia office, reminded employers of the DOL’s key focus on systemic FMLA problems during their investigations of employers’ FMLA practices.  As I have reported in my previous blog posts, the DOL’s interest in systemic issues means that the agency will regularly broaden its FMLA enforcement to identify compliance problems that impact multiple employees and multiple employer locations.  With increasing regularity, the DOL will move beyond a single complainant to an entire group, department, employer location and onto multiple employer locations to ensure compliance across a company’s work sites.

As reported by Thompson Information Services, who was covering our ABA conference session, and as I have reported in my previous blog posts, the DOL’s systemic investigations will generally take aim at three types of information:

  • statistical — leave trends, leave requests, leave approvals and responses to leave requests by supervisor, job group, type of request or any other grouping;
  • anecdotal — based on interviews with employees, supervisors, administrators and managers; and
  • documents — records of leave requests, notices provided, leave determinations, employer’s FMLA policy and handbook, and medical certifications and re-certifications.

Insights for Employers

This is yet another reminder that employers will continue to face scrutiny by the DOL on their FMLA procedures, and that they increasingly will become party to consent decrees where their FMLA practices do not adhere to the FMLA regulations.

I know I sound like a broken record, but as you prepare your HR and legal budgets for 2016, make an FMLA self-audit a priority for your workplace in the New Year.  As I have highlighted in a previous post, your self-audit should focus on the following:

  1. Conduct a thorough review of your FMLA policy. Important compliance alert: the DOL will review an employer’s FMLA policy and all of its FMLA forms to ensure that the March 2013 regulations are incorporated in these documents. As to your policy, is it up to date? If you have an employee handbook, is your FMLA policy included (along with the contents of the FMLA poster)? Moreover, does your policy incorporate issues such as: eligibility requirements; the reasons for FMLA leave; the definition of your 12-month FMLA leave year; requirements for bonding leave/placement in foster care or adoption; your call-in procedures; substitution of paid leave; the employee’s obligations in the FMLA process; medical certification process; explanation of intermittent leave; benefit rights during leave; fitness for duty requirements; outside work prohibitions during FMLA leave?
  2. Adhere to the Employer Posting Requirements. In addition to posting your FMLA policy in your handbook, employers also must post the DOL’s FMLA poster “prominently” where it can be viewed by employees and applicants. If a substantial portion of your workplace speaks a language other than English, you must provide the poster in that language.
  3. Ensure your FMLA forms are legally compliant. Examine all existing FMLA forms to determine whether they comply with FMLA regulations. A technical violation of the FMLA can be costly, so employers should ensure that their FMLA forms (Notice of Eligibility and R&R Notice, certification forms, Designation Notice) are all up to snuff.
  4. Prepare legally compliant FMLA correspondence. In addition to the forms above, be sure to put in place and review legally compliant correspondence regarding certification, recertification, failure to provide certification, insufficient/incomplete certification, employee’s return to work, second/third opinions. These communications also will be reviewed by the DOL during an investigation.
  5. Conduct a comprehensive audit of your FMLA practices and procedures. A couple immediately come to mind: a) What procedures are used by managers when an employee reports an absence that may be covered by the FMLA? Are they asking the correct questions to determine whether FMLA applies? (See a previous post that recommends several intake questions.) b) Do the procedures you follow ensure that all requests for leave, regardless of whether “FMLA leave” is expressly requested, reach the appropriate manager or Human Resources? c) How are you calculating increments of intermittent leave (and are you following the DOL’s new rule on this issue?) d) Are you complying with the FMLA regulations when seeking medical certification, curing certification, contacting health care providers to clarify certification, and seeking second and third opinions? e) Are you properly designating FMLA leave and providing timely notice to employees of the designation? f) Are you seeking recertification within the time periods allowed by the regulations and you’re not being overzealous in seeking recert in violation of the rules? g) Do you have compliant procedures for contacting and checking up on an employee while he/she is on FMLA leave? h) Are you following the regulations’ very specific guidelines for seeking fitness-for-duty certifications from employees returning from FMLA leave? Don’t have answers to these questions (or worse yet, you don’t have a clue about what I’m referring to)? All the more reason to pull in your in-house or employment counsel on this self-audit.
  6. Clean up your recordkeeping now. Are you maintaining all the data DOL will be looking for, and are your data accurate? Employers should have ready their employees’ identifying information, their payroll data, date(s) of FMLA leaves, FMLA hours/days/weeks taken, copies of employer and employee FMLA notices, certification forms, benefit documents, and disputes about designation of FMLA leave. These documents should be maintained for at least three years, and they should be kept separate from the personnel file.  As the DOL’s Appel made clear in our ABA presentation, the DOL will be making fairly broad information requests, so excellent recordkeeping is imperative.
  7. Train your employees! Over the years, the DOL has picked up on one important fact: your managers do not know your FMLA policy and leave procedures, so you better get a handle on this because these managers are creating a liability for you.  Indeed, there are far too many examples of employers who have paid out a whole lot of money because their manager said something foolish about FMLA, did not properly handle an absence covered by FMLA, or did not follow the FMLA regulations. Managers at all levels can drastically increase your liability when it comes to FMLA. Training them now immediately reduces your risk of liability — both in court and as a result of a DOL investigation.