Think Twice About “Maximum Medical Leave” Employee Policies

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Meyer_Elaina Smiley
Elaina Smiley
Meyer_Antoinette Oliver
Antoinette Oliver

By Antoinette Oliver and Elaina Smiley

The recent $1.35 million settlement that Princeton HealthCare System must pay to former employees should cause all health care employers to consider re-examining their employee medical leave policies.

Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS) had a maximum leave policy that allowed employees to take no more than 12 weeks of leave for medical reasons within a 12 month period.  The PHCS policy was in line with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows qualified employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family or medical reasons, such as the birth of a child, a serious health condition or to care for a sick family member.  Employees who qualify for FMLA leave can take up to 12 weeks of leave within a 12-month period, either intermittently or all at one time.

PHCS fired any FMLA eligible employee who took more than 12 weeks of medical leave.  It also fired those employees who were not eligible for FMLA leave after their being absent for only a short time.  The EEOC filed suit on behalf of the 23 affected employees, arguing that PHCS’ policy failed to consider leave as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for any employee who has a qualifying disability.  A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Under the ADA, employers must work with employees on a case-by-case basis to determine what reasonable accommodations are necessary, depending on the employee’s specific disability and the particular circumstances of the job. This includes adding website accessibility standards for inclusivity.

In some cases, unpaid medical leave in excess of the 12 week FMLA leave period may be a reasonable accommodation.   The ADA does not define the amount of time that is considered a reasonable accommodation for a medical leave.  Instead, employers need to assess each case on an individual basis to determine the amount of leave that would be a reasonable accommodation.  Employers should consider factors such as whether the employee will be able to perform necessary job duties after the leave period with or without an accommodation and whether the accommodation would cause an undue hardship on the company.

In the PHCS case, the hospital applied its 12-week limit on medical leave uniformly, without regard to whether an employee may have been covered under the ADA.  Thus, the hospital violated the provision of the ADA that requires employers to work with each individual to determine a reasonable accommodation based on the specific circumstances.

Many health care employers enforce a standard maximum leave policy among all employees to avoid showing favoritism or discrimination.  But an inflexible policy may be a violation of the ADA because it fails to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ disabilities on an individual basis.  

Small health care employers should take note that the ADA applies to all companies with 15 or more employees.  The FMLA, however, only applies to employers with 50 or more employees.  While a small health care employer may not have to provide medical leave for employees under the FMLA, it may have to allow employees with disabilities covered by the ADA to take medical leave as a reasonable accommodation.

The case reminds all health care employers that the FMLA and ADA have distinct requirements regarding employee medical leave.  Health care employers should review their employee medical leave policies to ensure that they provide the flexibility required under the ADA.  When any employee requests medical leave, employers should take note if such leave is related to a covered disability under the ADA and requires a reasonable accommodation.  Health care employers that enforce rigid maximum leave policies will likely violate the ADA and cause costly lawsuits.

Antoinette Oliver and Elaina Smiley are attorneys at Pittsburgh-based law firm Meyer, Unkovic & Scott.  Antoinette can be reached at aco@muslaw.com, and Elaina at es@muslaw.com.