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Sep 2, 2013

In business, you need to be ready for anything: unexpected delays, unmet expectations, problems with customers. Sometimes, your employees can become seriously ill, or must care for an ill spouse or child.

There are many good reasons why employees may need time off to care for themselves and their families — hey, life happens. As the employer, you need to know how to handle an employee leave and minimize the impact on your operations.

If you have 50 or more employees, you should already be familiar with the Family Medical Leave Act. If you’re not familiar with it, here are the key points.

Key points to remember…

(Note: this is not an exhaustive list. For that, you must read the law yourself, or hire someone to do it for you! For more information, see the U.S. Department of Labor website.)

  • Covered employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to care for themselves or a covered family member. The law allows a covered employee to take medical leave if they have a serious medical condition and are unable to work. Other circumstances include an employee caring for their newborn child, adopting or fostering a child, or caring for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious medical condition. Extended time is allowed for an employee to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness.
  • The employee must have worked for you for at least 12 months, worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months, and worked at a location where the company employs 50 or more people within 75 miles.
  • You must continue an employee’s health benefits while they are on approved leave. However, if the employee is paying for a portion of their health benefits, they will need to continue paying their share.
  • When the employee returns to work, they generally have a right to the same job or an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and working conditions at the conclusion of the leave. The leave cannot result in the employee losing any benefit that accrued before the leave began.

.. and a few more to think about

Here are more considerations:

  • You need to follow FMLA and FLSA record-keeping requirements. You must keep track of basic payroll and identifying employee data, dates of FMLA leave, hours of any partial leave, copies of employee notices given to you, copies of FMLA notices you gave to the employee, details about employee benefits and premium payments, and records of any disputes with the employee.
  • You need to follow HIPAA laws for privacy of employee health information. While you can request more information from the employee, such as a doctor’s note, you must have the employee’s authorization before a health provider will disclose any information directly to you.
  • Make sure you have the required FMLA postings in your workplace.
  • Check on your state laws as well. Your state may have requirements that supersede the FMLA requirements.

Keeping things going when someone is out

Beyond all that, here are some ways to keep your business running smoothly in the event of an extended employee absence:

  1. Plan for the absence in advance. Under the FMLA, you do have the right to ask the employee for advance notice of an extended leave. In that way, you can at least have a heads-up and plan accordingly. (Of course, these things can’t always be planned in advance. Then, you just do what you can.)
  2. Ask for a task list before the employee goes on leave. This helps you set priorities and hand off the most critical items to other employees.
  3. Ask the employee how they would like to handle paying their benefit premiums during leave. While some employees may want to send you a monthly check during their leave, most will either want to pre-pay or catch up their payroll deductions when they return, depending on whether your business allows this.
  4. Make sure the person’s phone is covered. You don’t want important customer calls winding up in the voice mailbox of an employee who will be out for months.
  5. Hire temporary help if needed. If your other employees can’t handle the additional workload and still perform their own jobs well, you may need to hire temporary help. (But remember  — the FMLA law protects the employee’s position with your company while they are out on leave.)
  6. Stay in touch during the leave. You don’t want the surprise of discovering that the employee isn’t planning to return after 12 weeks. During the leave, you can require the employee to give you a periodic update of their status and their intent to return to work (but make sure you’re following the FMLA law in this as well.)
  7. Give them a little time to get reacquainted with the office and catch up on mail before throwing any critical tasks their way.