FMLA caregivers must stay close; calls don’t count

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in FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

While the FMLA allows employees time off to care for a sick spouse, child or parent, such "care" doesn't have to be physical. FMLA regulations say employees can take FMLA leave to provide psychological care and support, too. But employees can provide psychological care only when they're in close proximity to the sick person. Long-distance phone calls won't cut the mustard.

A previous court ruling granted an employee FMLA time to help his father with depression by staying at the father's home and giving emotional support. In another case, an employee was allowed FMLA leave to care for his healthy kids while ?his wife cared for their hospitalized child. In both cases, the employees provided direct psychological support. Being there really does count.

Recent case: Charles Tellis, an airline mechanic in Seattle, took FMLA leave to care for his wife in the final days of her pregnancy. Right after Tellis took leave, his car broke down. Since he owned another car in Atlanta, he flew across the country to pick it up. While driving the car back, he called his wife regularly from his cell phone. He missed the birth by one day. When he returned to work, the company fired him.

Tellis sued, alleging he was entitled to FMLA leave during the cross-country drive because his phone calls provided psychological comfort for his wife. But the court tossed out his case, saying phone calls aren't the sort of "psychological care" that FMLA rules had in mind. If phone calls were enough, he surely could have come to work and made those calls during breaks. (Tellis v. Alaska Airlines, No. 04-35137, 9th Cir., 2005)

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