Charting a course between ADA regulations and FMLA can be tricky

by on January 21, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

ADA Law: Caught between Americans with Disabilities Act and FMLA

As if it weren’t complicated enough navigating the ADA law minefield, you have to keep another law in the back of your mind while doing so – the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA.
Because while you’re doing something that’s entirely legitimate under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you may be violating the FMLA. Or vice versa.
The two laws have very different purposes. ADA law deals with disability discrimination, which we saw earlier is always a longer-term issue. It protects people with disabilities against discrimination in hiring, promotion and discipline.
The FMLA gives employees up to 12 weeks of leave a year to attend to their own or their families’ serious health issues, whether those issues are long- or short-term. The FMLA isn’t an anti-discrimination law. It promotes an active right, rather than shielding a person with a physical impairment.
Despite their differences in intent, the two laws cover some of the same ground, and can interact in strange and not-so-wonderful ways, as the following case showed.

ADA requirements, FMLA compliance, or both?
Parker Hannaford looked ill. The veteran high school math teacher had leukemia, and principal Bixby Bates knew it. “So you’d like mornings off,” Bixby said.

“Yes, if possible,” Parker said. “I need daily treatment, and my doctor says it’s best to get it out of the way in the morning when I’m relatively strong and rested. I’m asking for an accommodation of a disability, just so we’re clear.”

“We’ll look into it, but it might be difficult,” Bixby said. “We’ll check on getting a half-day substitute.”

As it turned out, the school couldn’t find anybody to do half-day substitute teaching who was also conversant with math. So Parker’s request for afternoon duty only was turned down.
Parker filed an ADA lawsuit against the school district, but his grounds were something of a surprise. He didn’t sue under the American Disability Act, perhaps because he wasn’t sure that Bixby’s refusal of his proposed accommodation was unreasonable. Instead, he sued for an FMLA violation.
Parker claimed that even though he hadn’t asked for a medical leave as such, since he wanted to keep working the district should have advised him of his rights under the FMLA. It doesn’t guarantee paid leave, but it does allow employees to use sick leave or vacation time for their leaves, at the employer’s discretion, in which case the leave would be paid. Also, FMLA leave can be taken intermittently, which might have allowed Parker to arrange the schedule he wanted.
(DeCesare v. Niles City School District)

How the supervisor slipped up
Bixby didn’t think about FMLA because Parker couched his request in ADA law terms. But it is the supervisor’s duty, not the employee’s, to make the connection.

ADA Guidelines for Managers
If your company has more than 50 employees, you come under the FMLA. If that’s the case, whenever you’re discussing a disabling illness or the disability of an employee’s family member that might involve time off work, make sure you have a notice of FMLA rights and procedures at hand to give the employee.

Reciprocity works the other way, too. An employee who fails to meet FMLA eligibility guidelines – because he or she hasn’t been with the company long enough, for example – may still meet requirements under ADA law for a leave of absence

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