Are Employees Eligible for FMLA Leave During a Natural Disaster?

By Jeff Nowak, © Franczek Radelet P.C. Aug 30, 2017
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Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey—which has devastated Houston and southeast Texas—raise a host of issues for employers, including questions about an employer's obligation to provide a leave of absence to employees under laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Here are a few general points to consider as we're confronted with natural disasters:

  • The FMLA does not, in itself, require employers to give employees time off to attend to personal matters arising out of a natural disaster, such as cleaning a flood-damaged basement, salvaging belongings, or searching for missing relatives. Case in point: poor Joe Lane, whose FMLA lawsuit was dismissed after he sought FMLA leave, in part, to clean up his mom's flooded basement because her health conditions precluded her from doing so.

  • However, an employee would qualify for FMLA leave when, as a result of a natural disaster, the employee suffers a physical or mental illness or injury that meets the definition of a "serious health condition" and renders them unable to perform their job, or the employee is required to care for a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition who is affected by the natural disaster. Some examples might include the following:
    1. As a result of the natural disaster, an employee's chronic condition (such as stress, anxiety or soaring blood pressure) flares up, rendering them unable to perform their job. Where the medical certification supports the need for leave as a result of the natural disaster, FMLA leave is in play.

    2. An employee is required to care for a family member with a serious health condition for a reason connected with the natural disaster. Take, for instance, an employee's parent who suffers from diabetes. If the event took out power to the parent's home, the employee may need to help administer the parent's medication, which must be refrigerated. Similarly, the employee may need to assist a family member when their medical equipment is not operating because of a power outage.

[SHRM members-only toolkits Managing Family and Medical Leave and Coordinating Leaves of Absence]

What if an employee was already on FMLA leave when the hurricane hit and your business now is shut down for a period of time? 

Here, the FMLA regulations are clear: If your business activity has temporarily ceased and employees generally are not expected to report for work for one or more weeks, these days do not count against the employee's FMLA leave entitlement.

Finally, do you have to pay your employee on FMLA leave while your workplace is closed down? In short, you treat them the same way you would treat another employee on non-FMLA leave. This issue is governed by 29 C.F.R. § 825.209(h), which states:

An employee’s entitlement to benefits other than group health benefits during a period of FMLA leave (e.g., holiday pay) is to be determined by the employer’s established policy for providing such benefits when the employee is on other forms of leave (paid or unpaid, as appropriate).

Put in simple terms, you first look to treat the leave in the same manner you treat other forms of non-FMLA leave. If FMLA is being taken in conjunction with paid leave, look to the manner in which you treat employees on paid leave.

Where an employee is requesting leave as a result of the natural disaster, employers should obtain as much information as possible from the employee to determine whether the absence qualifies as protected leave. Where there is doubt, employers should provide the requisite FMLA paperwork and allow the employee to provide the necessary information to support FMLA leave. (This FMLA podcast covers how an employer should respond to a request for FMLA leave. It might be helpful here.)

Also, employers should ensure that medical certification is sufficient to cover the absence at issue. Where more information is required, employers must follow up with an employee to obtain the information necessary to designate the absence as FMLA leave. Moreover, when an employer has reason to doubt the reasons for FMLA leave, they have the right to seek a second opinion to ensure FMLA leave is appropriate.

Jeff Nowak is a Chicago-based partner and co-chair of the labor and employment practice at Franczek Radelet P.C.and author of the FMLA Insights blog, where this article originally appeared. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.


Related SHRM Articles:

Houston Employers: Wage and Hour Guidance and Hurricane Harvey, The SHRM Blog, August 2017

IRS Lets Retirement Plans Make Loans, Distributions to Victims of Hurricane Harvey, SHRM Online Benefits, August 2017

HR Pros Weather the Storm, SHRM Online Employee Relations, August 2017

Hurricane Harvey: Helping Storm Victims from the Workplace, SHRM Online Employee Relations, August 2017

And see these earlier SHRM Online articles:

When Disasters Strike: Pay, Leave and Related Issues, SHRM Online Compensation

Employee Leave Eligibility and Natural Disasters, SHRM Online Benefits


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