Care for healthy child wins FMLA coverage

The walls of employee FMLA protection have grown higher with a new court ruling that says a worker must be given leave to look after his healthy children while his wife attends to their other seriously ill child.

The case: Warehouse worker Julian Briones took FMLA leave to watch over his three kids while his wife stayed at the hospital with their sick son. After three days, his company fired him. Briones sued under the FMLA.

The company complained that care for a seriously ill child is covered, not care for the remaining healthy children. But the court agreed with Briones' liberal interpretation of the law and let the case go to trial. The court acknowledged that absences to care for a child without a "serious health condition" are not specifically allowed under the FMLA. But it said it looked at Congress' intent.

"A literal reading of the FMLA makes it clear that Congress passed it to aid families when faced with a crisis," said the court. Characterizing Briones' leave request "as one of merely baby-sitting healthy children" was too narrow. Since Briones would have been covered if he were the one at the hospital, the court said, he should also be covered in fulfilling the home duty. (Briones v. Genuine Parts Co., No. 01-1792, E.D. La., 2002)

Advice: If there's a seriously ill family member, you'll be on safer ground providing FMLA leave to the employee to deal with the crisis. However, do require that the care be related to a person with a qualifying "serious illness", not a common cold. And require medical certification from the doctor.

While this ruling may be appealed, courts tend to agree that the FMLA will be broadly applied to an employee's leave for a true family medical crisis. Earlier this year, for example, a court let a worker take FMLA leave even though he just gave emotional, not physical, support to his ailing father.