Viewpoint: To Crack Down on FMLA Abuse, Try the Chicago Way

By © Jeff Nowak October 31, 2018
Viewpoint: To Crack Down on FMLA Abuse, Try the Chicago Way

Picture Chicago's 911 call center. Pretty busy, yes? And like many other call centers, it has plenty of employees who take Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave.

Two years ago, nearly 50 percent of the center's call takers were on some type of absence tied to the FMLA. Imagine if on any given workday, 50 percent of your workforce was absent on leave. Could you run a business?

Fast forward to today, when the call center has reduced FMLA use by 4,000 hours, cut absenteeism by over 900 shifts and lowered overtime costs by nearly $1 million. That's nearly $1 million in reduced overtime costs.

How did Chicago do it? As the Chicago Sun-Times reported, the city used several critical tools to reduce FMLA abuse, for instance by:

  • Conducting FMLA training for all managers so they understand their role in the FMLA process and how to interact with employees requesting leave.
  • Empowering managers to ask their employees questions about their leave "without fear."
  • Initiating meetings with employees when they recognized a pattern of absenteeism, such as Friday/Monday call offs, or call offs in conjunction with a holiday or sporting event. Those who abused FMLA leave have been shown the door.

Insights for Employers

The city's outstanding work to reduce FMLA abuse is a call to action for the rest of us. Let me hone in on how you can follow Chicago's lead to reduce FMLA abuse in your own workplace:

  1. Train your managers so they are empowered to help you address misuse of FMLA leave. Employers often are reluctant to engage their managers about the FMLA or to include them in the FMLA process. This is understandable, as managers can create liability by what they say or do. However, they are your gatekeepers, and if properly trained, they can be incredibly effective as FMLA abuse busters, since they are your eyes and ears among your rank and file.

  2. Ask questions without fear. When your employees call off work, they should be required at a minimum to explain the reason for their absence and when they expect to return to work. If they offer even a hint of a medical condition as the reason for their absence, the properly trained manager (or properly trained leave administrator) should ask follow-up questions to determine whether the absence may be covered by FMLA.

  3. Meet with the employee to set expectations as to reporting their absences. Here, after FMLA has been approved, the employer (whether the manager or HR rep) meets with the employee to remind him/her about call-in requirements, what information they are expected to provide when they call in, and the consequences for failing to follow the call-in policy or providing medical information when requested by the employer.

  4. Meet again with the employee where you observe patterns of suspected abuse. When a leave request or use of leave seems fishy, don't ignore it. Be candid with your employee about it and ask questions about the circumstances so you can, in turn, determine whether you have a right to be concerned.

    Alicia Tate-Nadeau, executive director of Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications, put it this way:

    "Once we see a trend, we sit down with the employee and let them know we're seeing a trend. Is there something behind that? We like to look at our employees holistically—not just the time they're at work. Maybe there's something that causes that trend. And where we see clear cases of abuses, we are recommending them to be fired and put on the do-not-hire list."

    Hats off to the city of Chicago for clamping down on FMLA abuse and providing some practical steps the rest of us can put in place to do the same.

    Jeff Nowak is a shareholder at Littler, an employment and labor law practice representing management, and author of the author of the FMLA Insights blog, where this article originally appeared. © 2018 Jeff Nowak. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.



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