FMLA and the Sandwich Generation: Do You Get Proof of Elderly Parents’ Conditions, too?

When the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) surveyed employers about their biggest FMLA administrative challenges, dealing with leave for employees’ own chronic conditions ranked number one. But, surprisingly, not far behind was FMLA leave taken for “caring for a sick parent,” which ranked as more challenging than FMLA leave taken for a sick spouse or even a child.

With more “sandwich generation” employees taking care of children and parents at the same time, it’s wise to be consistent about requesting certification for all types of FMLA leave, including care for elderly parents.

Case in Point: Honda employee Chandra Scott filed an FMLA lawsuit, claiming that she was fired in retaliation for taking FMLA leave to help her mother.

Scott had taken leave when her mother underwent a stress test after she complained of shortness of breath. Then, more than a month later, her mother had an outpatient heart catheterization but went back to work after 48 hours. She didn’t need any further time off.

Honda argued that Scott didn’t qualify for FMLA leave because, it said, her mother’s condition didn’t rise to the level of a “serious health condition” defined under the FMLA. Under the FMLA a “serious health condition” is an “illness, injury, impairment or any physical or mental condition that requires inpatient medical care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.” (For details, read “FMLA: How to Define a Serious’ Health Condition.”)

FMLA Compliance D

How did the case end? And what lessons can be learned?

The court dismissed Scott’s FMLA retaliation case, reasoning that she wasn’t entitled to FMLA leave in the first place. Her mother didn’t have a chronic condition that required periodic medical treatment, nor did she have a serious health condition because she was not incapacitated. (Scott v. Honda Manufacturing, No. 07-14030, 11th Cir., 2008)

3 Lessons Learned … Without Having to Go to Court

1. Get serious about serious conditions. Use your medical certification rights to discover if conditions truly rise to the “serious” level cited by the FMLA. Employees are entitled to FMLA leave for a parent’s care only if, in fact, the parent has a serious health condition.

Taking a parent to a doctor’s appointment or for routine testing doesn’t typically constitute a serious health condition unless the parent has a chronic condition. Nor do routine medical visits such as physicals, blood draws for cholesterol levels, immunizations or other diagnostic work. FMLA covers only medical visits intended to monitor a disease or medication levels. If in doubt, ask for certification and request how often the parent is likely to need your employee’s help.

2. Request certification for all types of leave. Include in your FMLA policy the need to certify the seriousness of relatives’ health conditions—parents, children and spouses. Be sure to consistently follow your FMLA leave and certification policies for all employees.

3. Realize that overly generous policies can lead to fraud. While it may be easier to approve leave than to challenge it, blanket approvals may prove costly in the long run as employees learn to take advantage of your generosity.

Note: HR Specialist Premium Plus subscribers can learn more about the intricacies of FMLA compliance at the HR Law 101 section of the HR Specialist web site.