Employees who don't understand the purpose of the Family and Medical Leave Act can be suspicious of employees who are off work for weeks at a time or employees who appear to be regularly taking time off if they're on intermittent leave under FMLA. Coping with their suspicions and addressing their concerns might be a challenge at first, but once they understand what the law provides, you shouldn't have to spend too much time going over the details of company-approved leaves of absence.
An effective and proactive way to help co-workers cope with the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, leaves of absence is to educate them on the law and its benefits. During your new-employee orientation sessions when you're explaining company benefits, talk about FMLA and its requirements. Explain that it was enacted to protect the rights of employees who are dealing with serious health issues; it protects workers from being fired if they have to be off work for an extended period.
Tell your employees that FMLA grants up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave -- either in a block of time or intermittent leave. FMLA provides job-protected time off for pregnancy and delivery, adoption, surgery and recovery, and a serious health condition of the employee or a family member of the employee. New employees aren't yet eligible for leave because the person requesting leave must be employed for at least 12 months prior to her request and must have worked at least 1,250 hours during those 12 months. Assure employees that the human resources department is capable of processing FMLA leaves of absence within statutory U.S. Department of Labor regulations.
Curious co-workers might question whether someone is really sick enough to get 12 weeks off from work, but unless they're in an area of the HR department that grants FMLA leaves, they aren't privy to information about other employees' medical conditions. Supervisors who have to field questions about an employee's medical condition or the reason why she's off work for so long should be directed to the HR department. The HR staff will explain that all employees' medical information is confidential, just as it would be for the employee with questions about her co-worker's condition.
If your office has to rearrange staffing because an employee is out on FMLA, you needn't explain the details of the employee's leave when you reassign duties and tasks. You can simply say, "During the time Mary is out of the office on an approved leave, we'll make reassignments so the department stays on top of business demands." Including the phrase "approved leave" will probably lead some of her co-workers to believe she's on FMLA leave, but the only pertinent information is that the employee is on leave and that she will be returning.
When an employee is on FMLA, she's entitled to get her job back or a comparable job with equal pay, benefits and working conditions. If you have reassigned someone to take the place of the employee on leave, that person goes back to her regular duties upon the FMLA employee's return. It's possible that someone who took over the duties of an absent employee didn't realize that she goes back to her previous job. This can be challenging, particularly if the employee really enjoyed the reassignment and doesn't want to go back to her original job. In this case, tell the employee that you might consider her performance in that role if a similar vacancy opens up.
Sometimes an employee will come to you with legitimate concerns about an employee's leave of absence. Who knows, the employee may have overheard a conversation about the employee's intent to use FMLA for unapproved purposes. Listen to what the employee has to say and, if necessary, review the documentation that supports the request for FMLA leave. If this truly is a case of FMLA abuse, you may request additional certification from a healthcare provider or you might need to initiate a workplace investigation. Do not, under any circumstances, confirm the employee's suspicions or indicate that you agree with her concerns.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.