Is That Time-Off Request Because You’re Sick—or to Watch the Olympics?

If workers have ‘Rio fever,’ then let them watch the games at work

By Allen Smith, J.D. Aug 8, 2016
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​Workers may call in sick to watch the Olympics.

Nearly half of Americans—48 percent—anticipate they will watch a "great deal" or "fair amount" of the 2016 Summer Olympics, according to a Gallup poll released Aug. 2. Since many of the games will take place during the workday, Olympic fans may decide to take some time off work to keep up with their favorite athletes and events.

Taking time off to watch the Olympics is no big deal if the business can handle employees' absence then. "Most companies do not limit the reasons for which an employee can use PTO [paid time off] as long as proper company procedure is followed," said Kathy Dudley Helms, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Columbia, S.C. "If the employee has the PTO or vacation time and receives advance approval, it would not matter if she was going to sunbathe in the Caribbean for two weeks, follow her child's traveling soccer team or watch the Olympics." 

But she added that "the trick may come if someone requests last-minute approval" and if the request for vacation is denied. HR professionals may review ensuing Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and sick leave requests with a more critical eye during the Olympics, in case leave abuse crops up by those who want to sit on their couches and binge-watch the games.

'Liking' the Games

When an employee calls in sick but the managers thinks the request is suspicious, an employer is justified in asking for information for the basis of the sick leave, said Jay Hux, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Chicago. 

If an employee is bragging on Facebook about duping the employer and staying home to watch the Olympics or a co-worker shares information indicating that the employee was lying, confront the employee and then give him or her a chance to respond, Hux recommended.

"It is situations such as these where some employees will post on Facebook or other social media that they took an FMLA day or felt the need for one coming on because PTO was denied," Helms said. "That certainly creates a reasonable basis for reviewing the leave." But she cautioned, "If the time off is justified under the FMLA—even if convenient and used to watch the Olympics—the employee will be entitled to the protections of the FMLA."

Play by the Rules

If the employee seeks FMLA or ADA time off, the employer should always follow its FMLA certification process or its reasonable accommodation process, Hux noted.

"Even if an employee's leave request is suspiciously timed, you simply hand over the applicable forms and request that the [employee] fill them out completely with the help of a physician," said Glianny Fagundo, an attorney with Taylor English in Atlanta. "If the employee is bluffing, he will likely back away from the request when he sees that his scheme will require the submission of a document that looks official, potentially require him to engage in fraud and will require a visit to his physician."

The majority of workers who want to watch the games just want to watch an event here and there, not the whole Olympics, she said. 

If you tell employees they can't take time off to watch certain events, they may stream them on workplace computers, stressing your systems to the point of a shutdown or opening up your systems to viruses, Fagundo added. 

"If your workplace has 'Rio fever,' embrace it," she said. Consider tuning into the games on break room and conference room monitors and allowing long lunches or breaks. "Explain that while the company will offer employees opportunities to catch part of the games, the company will expect everyone to remain focused on their jobs or projects, continue to report their work hours honestly, and act respectfully toward each other," she recommended.

Couch Potatoes Might Win

As for the couch potatoes who skip work to watch the Olympics despite employer efforts to keep them on the job, proving fraud can be difficult. 

"The potential problem with proving fraudulent leave as it relates to watching the Olympics is that sitting on a couch and watching TV is in line with the vast majority of medical restrictions imposed related to medical leave," said David Pryzbylski, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis. "Employers likely will have a tough time proving an employee's medical leave is fraudulent if all the employee is doing is watching the events on TV," he added. "To the extent the employee provides a valid medical certification related to his or her need for leave under these circumstances, the employer likely will have to honor it."

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