Clarifying Leave of Absence Policies

Streamlining Employee Leave Process

I was recently talking with an employee to go over his leave rights. He found out his mom was very sick and needed to travel out of state to be with her. He planned to leave the next day, so we were talking by phone as he was packing his bag. I started throwing out an alphabet soup of leave terms (FMLA, CFRA and PFL) as the employee was throwing his belongings into a suitcase and trying to book a last-minute plane ticket online.

By the time I’d finished my standard leave speech, the employee wasn’t sure what, if any, leave he qualified for and was concerned he wouldn’t be able to take care of his mother without losing his job. I had explained the policies clearly, but to employees who have never taken leave before, it can all become a confusing puzzle of terms and dates. When I later talked to the employee’s manager about the situation, the manager was also confused about an employer’s obligation in this situation.

This is a common occurrence when discussing leaves of absence. Typically when someone needs to take leave, they are dealing with a stressful situation (e.g. serious medical condition, caring for an ill family member, spending time with a family member on leave from active military duty). Those situations are challenging enough without having to navigate the confusing waters of the various state and federal leave acts.

Therefore, while it is vital that HR professionals thoroughly explain an employee’s leave rights, it is also important that we give employees the tools to make the leave process easier.

Know Your State’s Leave Laws

In California we have the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL), which often run concurrently with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and provide additional protections. For example, under the FMLA employers can ask for details about an employee’s diagnosis; however, CFRA forbids California employers from asking details about an employee’s diagnosis. This means that California employers should not use the sample forms provided by the Department of Labor. Doing so will require the employee to provide information that is against the law in California. Be sure to know if your state has similar provisions.

It’s important that HR is also aware of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation guidelines as well as any state requirements for accommodating disabled workers. Some accommodations may require providing additional leave time even if an employee does not qualify for FMLA.

Training Managers

At my company, our HR department is located in the main office. We support six grocery stores, so we rely on managers to let us know when employees are off work for reasons that may qualify for leave. Shortly after starting at my current company, I was verifying timecards and noticed that an employee had not been at work for a couple of weeks. I called the employee’s manager to discuss the discrepancy. The manager stated the employee had been in the hospital and was at home recovering. He said the employee planned to use her paid time off to cover the time she missed; therefore, the manager thought he didn’t need to notify HR that the employee was off work for an extended amount of time due to a serious medical condition.

Of course, this is the kind of situation that makes those of us in HR groan with frustration. Even if an employee is using paid time off during their leave, it is important that we make both employees and managers aware of leave rights, so we are in compliance with state and federal law.

It’s not necessary to go through the details of all the different leave laws with managers (that is the job of the HR department). Instead focus on training them on recognizing reasons that may qualify for leave (e.g. an employee having surgery, an employee caring for a seriously ill family member, pregnancy, birth of a child, bonding with a new child). I remind managers that they don’t have to worry about determining eligibility, but they are responsible for contacting HR as soon as they hear about a potential leave situation.

It is essential that managers understand an employer’s responsibility to notify employees of leave rights and to direct them to the appropriate HR staff to answer any questions they may have. After providing training to managers, I have received a lot more calls from them about situations that might be leave.

Making the Process Easy for Employees

To make the process easier, I developed a system to help employees better understand their leave rights and responsibilities. Once an employee understands their rights, the biggest questions often seem to be about what paperwork they need to complete. The letters to employees required under the FMLA and similar state laws are a good start, but they are often detailed to the point where an employee may have a hard time figuring out their responsibilities. So, in addition to providing the required letters, I also give employees a checklist specific to their leave. This helps distill much of what is in the letter and becomes a quick reference tool for employees to use to ensure they’ve fulfilled their responsibilities. Your checklist should note any company forms you require, the certification from the healthcare provider, payment information for insurance and return-to-work forms. Note any relevant due dates.

When you meet with an employee about their leave, go through the checklist and each form. Allow time for questions and give the employee a way to contact you if they have questions later on. You should give them the required letter for their reference, but ultimately the checklist will be their guide.

In the End…

Leave laws are complicated, but managing leaves in your workplace doesn’t have to be. The key is to have a system in place that makes things easy to understand for managers and employees.

What works for you at your company? How do you make leave laws easier for your employees and managers to understand?

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.

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