Human Capital & Careers

Intervention Needed? FMLA Abused, Says Survey

But wary of the law, employers grant questionable medical leaves anyway.
Lisa YoonFebruary 4, 2003

It’s coming up on the tenth birthday of the Family and Medical Leave Act — and some benefits experts think the act is due for a makeover.

The good news for workers, according to a survey by Society for Human Resource Management, is that many companies go beyond the minimum requirements of the law — 12 weeks of job-protected leave for family and medical issues. The bad news, maybe they shouldn’t.

Why? According to the survey, many human-resources managers have trouble getting their arms around what exactly constitutes a serious, FMLA-worthy health condition. Determining how much time is reasonable to grant in each case and tracking the amount of time taken seems to be troublesome as well.

Of the 416 HR professionals that responded to the survey, 63 percent say their companies make exceptions to FMLA to provide more flexibility for employees. Another 57 percent of organizations offer job protected leave beyond FMLA requirements, such as paid leave, leave for parent-teacher conferences, or for employees who have been employed for less than 12 months.

And so what generally happens when an employee goes on medical leave? Apparently, other employees are asked to pick up the slack. Indeed, 62 percent of the respondents to the survey said they assign the work of employees on leave to other employees. Fifteen percent usually hire temps.

The seeming generosity of corporate treatment of FMLA cases belies the contentious debates behind the scenes in HR. For instance, half of HR professionals approved FMLA requests they thought were questionable — just to be on the safe side of the law.

Possible employee abuses cause rifts among employees, too: 34 percent of HR professionals were aware of employee complaints about co-workers abusing the FMLA system. What’s more, less than half (48 percent) of leave requests were scheduled in advance.

The problem with FMLA, according to SHRM analysts, is that, though well-intentioned, it’s bogged down by a complexity that invites varying interpretations of the law by the Department of Labor, the courts, and, of course, HR managers.

“Unfortunately, the FMLA has become a national sick leave policy where pink eye, sprained ankles and the common cold have become serious medical conditions,” said SHRM CEO Susan R. Meisinger. “It’s clear…that the law needs a number of technical corrections to make it truly effective for employees and viable for employers.”

In case you’re planning a party, the FMLA turns 10 on February 5.

Short Take

Employers spent about $5.9 trillion on total compensation in 2001, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Nearly $5 trillion, or almost 85 percent, of that went to wages and salaries, while $920.5 billion (15.7 percent) was spent on benefits.

According to Watson Wyatt analysts, the EBRI numbers represent a shift in the benefits scene during the second half of the 20th century: In the early days, retirement benefits were tops with both workers and companies. It still is, but now health benefits are emerging as a real money-drain.