How employers get tripped up by the complexities of Workers’ Comp, ADA, and FMLA regulations

While Workers’ Comp (WC), ADA, and FMLA laws have been in place for many years, the overlap between the three is a constant challenge.The laws have different time frames, duration, and rules around eligibility and use the same terminology with different meanings. Several states, notably California and New York, have adopted their own leave of absence laws that are more expansive than the federal laws, and case law is constantly evolving and varies by region.

Here are common issues that get employers into trouble:

Length of leave

FMLA requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a serious health condition and/or birth/adoption of a child. For eligible employees, the leave cannot exceed 12 weeks under law, but additional leave can be granted under the ADA. Leave can also be intermittent.

Under the ADA, employers must consider providing unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation for employees with a disability, which is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Leave can be intermittent. The EEOC notes that leave qualifies as a reasonable accommodation “when it enables an employee to return to work following the period of leave.”

While the maximum length of leave is undefined, the EEOC and several federal appellate courts have said that leave of “indefinite duration” can be considered an undue burden on the employer. Some courts have gone so far as to say that individuals seeking excessively long or undetermined leaves need not be accommodated because they are not “otherwise qualified” for their jobs under the ADA. The ADA protects individuals with disabilities who are otherwise qualified, with or without accommodation, to perform the essential functions of their jobs.

There are no limits on the length of leave under WC, although some states use evidence-based medicine guidelines to control WC costs. While workers’ comp provides for income replacement and health care, it does not, necessarily, provide job protection. This varies by state law.

Common issues:

  • For WC claims, FMLA leave should run concurrent with the WC leave. A workplace injury that requires time away from work and meets the criteria for a ‘serious health condition’ under FMLA should trigger an assessment of the worker’s eligibility for FMLA and, for those eligible, initiation of the paperwork process. If the employer properly notifies the employee in writing that the time off work receiving WC benefits will be counted as FMLA leave, it is counted against the employee’s applicable 12-week entitlement. Periodic treatment or therapy can count as intermittent FMLA leave.
  • The ADA and WC define disability quite differently. The ADA is not intended to cover temporary medical conditions. Work-related injuries do not always cause physical or mental impairments severe enough to “substantially limit” a major life activity. Moreover, a WC determination of permanent total disability doesn’t necessarily affect an individual’s ability to return to work under the ADA, although it may provide relevant evidence regarding an employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the position or to return to work without posing a direct threat to themselves or others.
  • Staff is not adequately trained in what constitutes a ‘serious health condition’ under FMLA. Some experts define it as incapacity of more than three consecutive calendar days and/or continuing treatment. For example, if a worker is being treated for chronic back pain but has not been incapacitated for three days, it still might be covered. Migraines could be covered, but not headaches. Typically, routine care such as eye or dental exams, the flu, colds, and conditions where the treatment is limited to OTC medications are NOT serious health conditions.
  • Managers may fail to recognize that FMLA has been requested. The employee does not have to use the term ‘FMLA’ to request leave; rather, the employee must only give notice of the need for leave that is protected by the FMLA.
  • Once an employee exhausts the protected leave of 12 weeks under the FMLA, the employer must consider whether the employee is eligible for additional leave under the ADA. The ADA requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” employees with disabilities and such accommodation can include granting additional leave. In some cases, the ‘serious health condition’ can qualify as an ADA disability. ADA’s broad definition of “disability” can include mental afflictions such as depression and anxiety. An employee need not mention the ADA or ask for a “reasonable accommodation” to put the employer on notice of a possible need for accommodation. In some cases, a serious workplace injury should trigger the interactive process, sooner, rather than later.
  • Recordkeeping is lax, particularly involving intermittent FMLA leave. Documentation of the interactive process for ADA must be rigorous.

Benefits and reinstatement

Both the FMLA and ADA have reinstatement and benefit maintenance requirements, although the ADA allows an exception for ‘undue hardship.’ The ADA requires employers to reinstate employee to their previous position unless it causes undue hardship and maintain benefits the same as similarly situated employees on leave. Under the FMLA, health benefits must be maintained, others are based on policy. It protects the employee’s job during the leave period, and at the end of the leave an employer must return the employee to his or her original job or its equivalent.

While WC provides for income replacement and health care, it does not, necessarily, provide job protection. This varies by state law. However, employers are typically prohibited from terminating or otherwise taking adverse action against an employee in retaliation for the employee’s filing of a WC claim.

Common issues:

  • When an employee is covered by both ADA and FMLA, the reinstatement policy must allow return to the same job, not just an equivalent.
  • Employees incurring a compensable workers’ comp injury may be eligible for leave under ADA and FMLA. If so, the maintenance of benefits and reinstatement of employees to the same or an equivalent position as required by the laws is applicable.
  • Employees on workers’ compensation leave cannot be subjected to retaliation for filing an injury claim or collecting benefits, but they could be disciplined or terminated for legitimate reasons, including a refusal to report for work when expected or required, even if the expectation is to perform light-duty work.

Light duty assignments

Under the FMLA, employers can’t require employees to work during leave. Contact with employees to obtain information, such as passwords, needs to be brief and concise. Employees can reject a light duty assignment and can choose to stay home until they can return to the former position (or to an equivalent position), or until the available FMLA leave is exhausted.

Under WC, if an employee has been medically cleared for a light duty assignment, in many cases, the employer can terminate WC benefits if the employee refuses the assignment.

Under the ADA, light duty is a permissible accommodation. The employer is not required to provide the employee’s preferred accommodation. However, the law does not require employers to agree to a permanent light duty assignment as a form of reasonable accommodation.

Common issues:

  • An employee cannot be disciplined or terminated for refusing light-duty work when the absence is protected under the FMLA. If the employee is receiving WC benefits, the employer can terminate or modify the benefits.
  • Often in WC cases, the issue of whether an injured employee can return to work is decided by the claims adjuster in consultation with the employer, based on the work restrictions issued by the treating physician. Under the ADA, employers are typically not required to create even temporary light duty positions as an accommodation, but courts have differed on an employers’ obligations to open WC light duty programs to all disabled employees. When employers do, under the “interactive process” of the ADA, a more flexible approach that involves an open dialogue between the injured employee and the employer is required.
  • It is common for employers dealing with injured employees to impose a fixed limit, for example, a 90-day limit, on the length of light-duty transitional work. While such a fixed limit might not violate the requirements of the ADA, when the fixed light-duty period ends, just as when an employee’s leave is exhausted, the employer and employee would be required to reengage in the interactive process.
  • Under the ADA, while an employer cannot require an employee to do something that is inconsistent with restrictions listed by the employee’s doctor, an employer can require an employee to return to work if the employee can perform the work required with or without a reasonable accommodation. The interactive process is fluid and accommodations must constantly be adjusted as the restrictions and the job changes.
  • Under WC, light duty work must be consistent with medical restrictions set by the treating doctor. If an employee chooses not to take a light duty job that accommodates the medical restrictions, the employer can terminate or modify the benefits.
  • Managers and supervisors must be properly trained in implementing stay-at-work and return-to-work programs.

Medical inquiry/documentation

Under the ADA, medical inquiries must be job-related and necessary to assess ability to perform the essential functions of the job. Under the FMLA, employers can request certification of serious health conditions from healthcare providers and must give employees 15 days to provide certification. In WC, the discovery allowed can be broad and include pre-existing conditions. HIPAA’s privacy rule allows WC insurers, third-party administrators and some employers to obtain the necessary medical information to manage their WC claims. Disclosure of medical information can vary from state to state.

Common issues:

  • Under the ADA, medical examinations should be limited to determining an employee’s ability to perform the job and whether an accommodation is needed and would be effective.
  • Under the FMLA, a medical certification should demonstrate the need for leave but not exceed what is requested by the Department of Labor’s medical certification form.
  • Employers need to understand the state laws governing medical privacy and workers’ comp claims.

Complying with the array of laws and regulations governing work-related injuries is complicated for employers and their counsel. Employers must examine the requirements of each individual statute, and how they interrelate. Throughout the process, encourage open communication with the employee, rely on sufficient medical documentation, maintain consistency in decision-making, document the process, and monitor the leave.

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