Tips for Managing Employee Leaves of Absence

With a host of federal and state laws with varying requirements, managing leaves of absence is complicated. An industry expert shares some tips to make sure your association is doing everything it can to stay in compliance.

Would you know what to do if an employee hurt his or herself outside of work and needs the next few weeks off to recover? Would you know how to respond if an employee approached you about requesting time off to care for hospitalized child?

Those are trick questions: The correct answer is “it depends,” because it’s extremely complicated.

“There’s complexity around managing leaves of absence—significant complexity because not only do we have the federal law for FMLA and ADA, we also have state law,” said Terri Rhodes, CEO of the Disability Management Employer Coalition.

Now, paid sick leave laws have further complicated matters, since they intersect and overlap with federal and state FMLA and ADA, according to Rhodes. That’s why it so important that employers take time to understand the impact of all of the regulations around their employees’ entitlement to time away—at both the federal and the state levels.

“There are over 500 leave laws,” Rhodes said. “There is bone marrow donor leave, there’s bereavement leave, there’s voters’ rights, there’s school activity leaves, there’s organ transplant leaves—with so many different leaves, it’s important to understand the requirements in the individual states in which you operate.”

Here are a few other best practices associations should put in place to best manage leaves of absence:

Train front-line managers. “Supervisors need to be trained at the 30,000-foot level to understand if somebody invokes their FMLA or ADA rights,” Rhodes said. “Employees don’t always say, ‘I want to take a leave under FMLA.’ They may say something like, ‘I need to take the next four weeks off in the afternoons because I have to take my mom to chemotherapy.’” Still, even if employees don’t have the right lingo, employers should have the knowledge to translate those requests to the various applicable federal and state regulations.

Keep the administration of leaves centralized. “Some organizations push out the management of someone’s leave of absence to the department level or maybe to the supervisor level, and that’s when we tend to find there are then inconsistent practices in how leaves of absence are handled,” Rhodes said. To mitigate that risk, associations should keep the administration of its employees’ leaves of absence centralized in one place, whether that’s their HR department or an outside vendor or service.

Maintain consistent and clear policies. Most associations have employee handbooks where they spell out company policies regarding leaves of absence, but they need to make sure that their own policies are consistent with requirements under FMLA and ADA. For instance, Rhodes said that while associations might have a workers’ compensation policy that states, “OK, we’re only going to bring people back to work once they’re 100 percent,” that’s actually in violation with the ADA.

What’s the risk in not giving this due diligence? “Supervisors can be held personally responsible under the law if they unintentionally or intentionally interfere with somebody’s right to take a leave,” Rhodes said.  “And employers are held responsible if an employee files a complaint with the DOL or the EEOC. … There are a number of organizations that have been monetarily penalized a significant amount because the DOL and EEOC take enforcement very seriously.”

What tips does your association use in making sure it’s in compliance when it comes to managing leaves of absence? Please leave your comments below.

(Hailshadow/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

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