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How to Communicate With an Employee While on FMLA

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All government agencies and many private sector employers are required by law to offer employees unpaid or even paid leave for medical reasons. Employer unpaid and paid medical leave programs are governed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. When an eligible employee qualifies for leave under FMLA provisions and is away from the workplace, her employer may wish to communicate with her periodically. However, employer communications with employees on leave under FMLA provisions should be closely managed.

Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993

The Family and Medical Leave Act was signed into law in 1993 and it requires covered employers to provide job protections and unpaid leave to eligible employees. Qualified medical and family leave reasons include personal or family illnesses, pregnancy, adoption or becoming a foster parent. Besides government agencies, private employers with 50 or more employees are usually required to provide FMLA coverage. Employees must request FMLA from their employers, who are also prohibited from retaliating against them for exercising their FMLA rights.

Control Number of Phone Calls

The Warner Norcross & Judd law firm advises employers to carefully manage their communications with employees wishing to take or already taking time off using FMLA. Employers should designate a single source, such as the human resources department, to handle communications with employees out on FMLA. By utilizing a single source for communication with employees on FMLA, employers can control the number of calls made to the employee. Too many phone calls to an employee taking time off through FMLA coverage could be the basis of an employee's claim of harassment, the law firm warns. The federal law forbids employers from doing anything that interferes with a worker's leave.

Control What's Communicated

Employers shouldn't badger employees on FMLA as to their anticipated return dates. FMLA requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and they should plan for a 12-week-long absence. Employers must also be careful that impermissible statements aren't made to employees while they're out on FMLA, such as implying that job security hinges on a speedy return from leave. Employers communicating with employees on FMLA leave should generally just limit their conversations to the employees' rights and obligations under the Act.

Managing a FMLA Program

Managing a FMLA program and ensuring permissible employer-employee interactions under it can be a complicated process. Many managers and supervisors aren't well-trained in FMLA, and can easily run afoul of its provisions. Covered employers falling under FMLA regulations should understand the procedures involved in an employee requesting FMLA leave, if only to prevent potential employee issues. For example, properly communicating with employees on FMLA as to when their leave periods expire may help to avoid return-to-work failures and potential employee lawsuits.


Tony Guerra served more than 20 years in the U.S. Navy. He also spent seven years as an airline operations manager. Guerra is a former realtor, real-estate salesperson, associate broker and real-estate education instructor. He holds a master's degree in management and a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies.

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