New DOL Guidance on FMLA Leave for Mental Health Conditions

In connection with Mental Health Awareness Month, the Department of Labor (DOL) has sought to assist employers in better understanding how to comply with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) regarding mental health conditions. On May 25, 2022, the DOL issued new guidance and FAQs on requirements for providing FMLA leave to employees to address their own mental health conditions or to care for a covered family member with a mental health condition. (Click here for Quick Basics on FMLA)
 

Leave for Mental Health Conditions under FMLA

Eligible employees may take FMLA leave for their own serious health condition or to care for a spouse, child, or parent because of a serious health condition. The guidance confirms that a mental health condition can constitute a “serious health condition” if the condition requires either:
 
  • Inpatient Care: A serious mental health condition that requires inpatient care includes a situation in which the individual stays overnight in a hospital or other medical care facility. Examples include rehabilitation centers for drug addiction and treatment centers for individuals with eating disorders.
  • Continuing Treatment by a Healthcare Provider: Mental health conditions that require continuing treatment by a health care provider include:
    • Conditions that incapacitate an individual for more than three (3) consecutive days and require ongoing medical treatment.
    • Chronic conditions that cause occasional periods when the individual is incapacitated and requires treatment by a health care provider at least twice a year.

Ongoing medical treatment for a mental health condition can be multiple appointments with a health care provider or a single appointment and follow-up care. Examples of such treatment include behavioral therapy, prescription medications, or rehabilitation counseling. Examples include anxiety, depression, and dissociative disorders.
 

Leave Documentation Guidelines

Employers may require an employee to submit a certification from a health care provider to support the need for FMLA leave. The information provided on the certification must be sufficient to support the need for leave, but a diagnosis is not required.
 

Employee or Family Member

Eligible employees can take FMLA leave to care for their own serious mental health condition or to care for a covered family member with a serious mental health condition. For example, the FAQs explain that an eligible employee would be entitled to FMLA leave to attend a family counseling session for a spouse who is in an inpatient treatment program for substance abuse or to assist a parent receiving medical treatment for depression with day-to-day activities.
 

Caring for a Covered Military Servicemember or Veteran

The FMLA also provides eligible employees with up to 26 workweeks of military caregiver leave in a single 12-month period to care for a covered servicemember and certain veterans with a serious injury or illness. An employee may be an eligible military caregiver if they are the spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin of the servicemember. Eligible employees may take military caregiver leave under the FMLA for a covered service member or veteran with a serious mental health condition when the condition (1) was incurred or aggravated in the line of duty and (2) makes them unfit to perform their military duties. Although the mental health condition must be incurred or aggravated in the line of duty, it does not have to manifest itself before the service member leaves active duty for the employee to use FMLA leave. Examples include caring for a veteran whose mental health condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or depression, manifested after the individual became a veteran but is related to their military service.
 

Confidentiality

The FMLA requires employers to keep employee medical records confidential and maintain them in separate files from more routine personnel files. However, supervisors and managers may be informed of an employee’s need to be away from work or if an employee needs work duty restrictions or accommodations.
 

Protection from Retaliation

Employers are prohibited from interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise of, or the attempt to exercise, any FMLA right. Examples include refusing to authorize FMLA leave or disclosing or threatening to disclose information about an employee’s or an employee’s family member’s mental health condition to discourage them from taking FMLA leave.
 

A Word of Caution

Employers should be reminded not to discourage taking FMLA leave. An employer can run afoul of the FMLA rules if the employer “denies or interferes with FMLA benefits to which an employee is entitled resulting in harm to the employee.” 

A recent case from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Ziccarelli v. Dart et al.) highlights how employers can be vulnerable to the “interferes with” standard. Importantly, the FMLA does not require an actual denial of FMLA benefits for a violation to occur. Instead, an employer violates an employee’s FMLA rights when it denies, interferes with, or restrains the employee’s exercise or attempt to exercise such rights. Following is a quick overview of the case:

FMLA Request: During the current leave year, an employee has used more than 300 hours of leave and, at his doctor’s recommendation, asks his employer for an additional 8 weeks of leave for treatment of his serious health condition. Specifically, the employee asks the employer about the possibility of using his available FMLA leave as well as his sick leave and other employer-provided leave benefits. 

Employer Response: In response, the employer’s representative states that the employee has taken a significant amount of FMLA leave and tells him not to take any more FMLA leave, or he will be disciplined. Based on this conversation, the employee decides not to take any more leave and, instead, chooses to retire. The employee then files a complaint alleging that the employer interfered with his rights under the FMLA. 

Examples of prohibited interference or restraint include refusals to grant or accept proper requests for FMLA leave, burdensome FMLA approval processes, informing an employee with FMLA leave available that missing additional time will have consequences, and other actions that discourage employees from requesting FMLA leave. Concerning Mr. Ziccarelli, the court concluded that he had more than a month of FMLA leave available at the time he requested FMLA leave from his employer and, therefore, the alleged statement that Mr. Ziccarelli would be disciplined if he took any more FMLA leave was sufficient to support an FMLA interference claim and allow the matter to proceed to trial.
 

Quick Basics on FMLA for Reference

Employees are eligible for FMLA benefits if they work for a covered employer for at least 12 months, have at least 1,250 hours of service for the employer during the 12 months before the leave, and work at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.

Covered employers include private employers if they employed 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year. Public agencies, including local, state, or Federal government agencies, and public and private elementary and secondary schools are FMLA-covered employers regardless of the number of employees they employ.

FMLA requires employers to:
 
  • Provide 12 work weeks of FMLA leave each year,
  • Continue an employee’s group health benefits under the same conditions as if the employee had not taken leave, and
  • Restore the employee to the same or virtually identical position at the end of the leave period.

FMLA may be unpaid or may be used at the same time as employer-provided paid leave.
 

Link to Guidance

https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/fact-sheets/28o-mental-health
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