Navigating the Overlap Between the ADA and the FMLA
When an employee becomes sick, has a disability or must take leave to support their family, they may be entitled to legal protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or both, in some situations. However, determining which laws apply to an employee's circumstances can often be complicated, and missteps can be costly for employers, resulting in expensive penalties, fines and legal fees.
While the ADA and FMLA support employees with physical or mental health conditions, they have different requirements. Employers must evaluate them carefully to correctly determine which legal protections extend to an employee's situation. This article outlines the ADA and the FMLA and explores the intersection of these laws to help employers navigate difficult compliance situations.
The FMLA is a federal law that provides eligible employees of covered employers with unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. A private-sector employer is considered a covered employer under the FMLA if they employ 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks in the current or previous calendar year. In general, eligible employees may take up to 12 weeks of leave each year for FMLA-qualifying reasons, including the treatment of a serious health condition.
To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must:
An eligible employee may take up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period for any of the following FMLA-qualifying reasons:
A "serious health condition" is an illness, injury, impairment or physical or medical condition that involves inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider. The FMLA does not apply to routine medical examinations (e.g., an annual physical) or common conditions (e.g., an upset stomach) unless complications develop.
The ADA makes it illegal for covered employers to discriminate against qualified individuals with disabilities in all employment practices, including recruitment, compensation, hiring and firing, job assignments, training, leave and benefits. In addition, the ADA prohibits an employer from retaliating against an applicant or employee for asserting their rights under the ADA. It's also unlawful to discriminate against an applicant or employee, whether disabled or not, because of the individual's family, business, social or other relationship or association with an individual with a disability. Employers with 15 or more employees are covered by the ADA.
The ADA requires a covered employer to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business. A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment or in the way things are customarily done that enables an individual with a disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities. However, not everyone with a medical condition is protected by the ADA. To be protected, a person must be qualified for the job and have a disability as defined by the law.
The ADA protects qualified individuals with disabilities from employment discrimination. Under the ADA, a person has a disability if he has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. The ADA also protects individuals who have a record of a substantially limiting impairment and people who are regarded as having a substantially limiting impairment.
Major life activities include but are not limited to caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating and working. A major life activity also encompasses the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine and reproductive functions.
A qualified employee or applicant with a disability is an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job in question. Essential functions are the basic job duties an employee must be able to perform, with or without reasonable accommodation. Factors to consider in determining if a function is essential include:
The ADA and FMLA can overlap in some situations, entitling employees to the legal protections of both laws. When an employee is covered by the ADA and the FMLA, a covered employer must provide the employee with the rights afforded by both laws: 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave (FMLA) and a reasonable accommodation to allow the employee to perform their essential job functions (ADA).
These laws can overlap because they provide legal protection to employees with physical and mental health conditions and use similar terms, such as illness and disability. Due to their requirements, the ADA and FMLA intersect when an employer has 50 or more employees. For example, if an employee has exhausted their FMLA leave, they may be entitled to additional protections under the ADA, including additional leave, if they have a qualifying disability. Therefore, FMLA-covered employers must consider if and when the ADA factors into an employee's FMLA-qualifying leave.
Employers can consider the following strategies to help them navigate the intersection of the ADA and the FMLA:
Navigating the intersection of the ADA and the FMLA can be challenging. However, understanding how these laws overlap can help employers better comply with the ADA and the FMLA, reduce the risk of costly errors and ensure employee rights are protected.
Employers can explore these government resources for more information:
For more workplace resources, contact ThinkTank Insurance Partners today.
This article is not intended to be exhaustive nor should any discussion or opinions be construed as professional advice.
Marty has spent most of the last 20 years developing software in the marketing space and creating pathways for software systems to talk to each other with high efficiency. He heads our digital marketing efforts as well as oversees any technology implementations for our clients. As a partner, Marty is also responsible for internal systems in which help our team communicates with each other and our clients.