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Dealing with complications from FMLA

BY RANDY FOX

Five years ago, I started Capstone HR Services to be a resource to smaller employers in western Kentucky who may not have an actual HR department. I have loved working on policy manuals, compensation plans, performance evaluation systems, labor negotiations, and the list goes on.

Recently, someone asked me what issue seems to be the most confusing for small businesses. That was easy: the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

It wasn't meant to be that difficult: employees could take up to 12 weeks off from their job if they or a member of their family is sick or disabled and their job was guaranteed to be waiting for them when they got back. Employers realized that their talent didn't have to quit to take care of traumatic family needs. Granted, the time off was without pay but it was major-league job security for those in need.

The problem is complying with all the details. There are strict rules and deadlines on the employer for how to administer the leave. One wrong form or missed date and the company is out of compliance and subject to large penalties. And policy decisions related to the act's administration must be communicated in advance to all employees or your business defaults to the least favored option.

And to keep administrators on their toes, Congress has amended the act several times to include more and more circumstances. The last few changes have been to increase leave eligibility for families of those who are called into the military. Very worthwhile additions, but just all the more complicated.

The tipping point often comes when FMLA has to overlap with either a workers' compensation claim or the administration of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended. An additional tipping point comes when an employee requests intermittent leave, as allowed under the law.

To get the original act passed in Congress, a compromise was reached to exempt companies with fewer than 50 employees. This has helped keep the burden off the truly small employer, but I do know many a small company that extends the law's coverage voluntarily to their employees despite having fewer than 50 on staff.

Whether you have more than 50 employees or provide coverage to your smaller staff as a good-faith offering, I encourage you to make sure someone in your organization becomes an expert in the administration of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Randy Fox, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, is founder and senior partner of Capstone HR Services, Inc.

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