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Tackling the Challenges of Intermittent FMLA

Thursday, September 3, 2015
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Intermittent leaves are arguably the No. 1 source of frustration for employers nationwide. While employees may attempt to plan and schedule their intermittent leave, this often includes unforeseen time away from work over and above the original certification. Intermittent, unplanned absences create the perfect storm for employers trying to maintain balance in productivity, quality and necessary staffing levels.

Unfortunately, intermittent Family and Medical Leave Act leave is oftentimes overused by employees who want to bypass workplace attendance and tardiness rules by citing their entitlement to job-protected time off with minimal or no advance notice.

Faced with such situations, employers are left to scramble to find a temporary replacement to ensure business continuity. Many times, employers have no choice but to leave work pending, awaiting the employee's return, or redistribute work to already-burdened co-workers, as it is generally not cost-effective or practical to get temporary staffing for such brief absences.

As a consequence, intermittent FMLA leave presents challenges for both the supervisor responsible for his or her staff's workforce productivity and the benefits administrator keeping track of ongoing eligibility for leave and managing lost time.

According to a 2012 Department of Labor survey on FMLA, dealing with unplanned leave is not so easy. In its report, the DOL found that 67.2 percent of all worksites report that dealing with unplanned episodic or intermittent leave has been either "somewhat difficult" or "very difficult."

Considering the challenges that employers have faced in the 20 years since FMLA's inception, it is reasonable that they may not see the inherent potential for the Family and Medical Leave Act to actually help in decreasing the costs of paid disability absences. An employee's use of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act can help to forecast and then prevent subsequent disability absences, according to a 2013 report from the Integrated Benefits Institute.

This premise was supported by research from the Reed Group, which found that employees who took intermittent time under FMLA for their own serious health condition or to care for sick family members were nearly three times more likely to file a subsequent short-term disability claim within six months than were employees who hadn't taken FMLA leaves.

Additionally, the four-year study found that 21 percent of employees taking intermittent FMLA file a short-term disability claim within six months.

When an employee requests FMLA leave from his or her company, this is one of the few times when he or she can communicate about a health condition or family situation before a disability may surface.

A supervisor has often been given insight into an employee's well-being, and therefore has an opportunity to help coordinate his or her care, access available health and family assistance resources and make positive changes in employees' health behaviors. This can prevent more costly disability claims without significantly increasing absence-management expenses.

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Employers can also develop strategies to connect such at-risk employees with existing workplace benefits such as employee-assistance programs, disease-management services, wellness programs and health coaching.

Unfortunately, not enough employers are tapping into this critically important channel of leave-forecast intelligence. For example, a 2011 employer leave- management survey conducted by Spring Consulting Group found that only 32 percent of employers integrated EAP services with FMLA programs.

In addition, employers can consider ergonomic interventions, including the use of assistive devices to prevent exacerbation of injury.

They can also discuss stay-at-work alternatives, such as job accommodations, which can include adjustments to the job responsibilities of affected employees that allow them to continue working at a reduced level. Improvement of FMLA training for supervisors, emphasizing early warning signs, and legal, viable and standard interventions are critical steps in the right direction.

Lastly, employers can focus on ways to better educate their workers on the types of absences the FMLA does and does not cover, and their rights and responsibilities to move toward establishing a more equitable balance between meeting the needs of the employee and the business continuity of the employer.

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