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.
The ADA and FMLA are two important laws that offer support to employees dealing with physical or mental health conditions. However, it’s essential for employers to carefully evaluate these laws to determine the specific legal protections that apply to each employee’s situation.
This article aims to provide a clear overview of the ADA and FMLA and how they intersect, offering valuable guidance to help employers navigate complex compliance issues.
Overview of the FMLA
The FMLA is a federal law that offers eligible employees of covered employers the opportunity to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family and medical situations. To fall under the FMLA’s purview, a private-sector employer must have a workforce of 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks during the current or prior calendar year. As a general guideline, eligible employees can avail themselves of up to 12 weeks of leave annually for qualifying FMLA reasons, such as receiving treatment for a serious health condition.
Employee Eligibility Requirements
To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must:
- Be employed by a covered employer
- Have worked for their employer for at least 12 months as of the date the leave is to start
- Have accrued at least 1,250 hours of service for their employer during the 12-month period before the leave
- Work at a location where their employer has at least 50 employees in a 75-mile radius
Qualifying Reasons for FMLA Leave
An eligible employee may take up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period for any of the following FMLA-qualifying reasons:
- The birth of a child or placement of a child with the employee for adoption or foster care, as well as the need to bond with the child within one year of birth or placement
- The treatment of a serious health condition that results in the employee being unable to perform the essential functions of their job
- The employee needs to care for an immediate family member who has a serious health condition
Any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee has an immediate family member who is a military member on covered active duty or has been called to covered active duty status.
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.
Overview of the ADA
The ADA ensures that covered employers cannot engage in discriminatory practices against qualified individuals with disabilities across all aspects of employment, including recruitment, compensation, hiring and termination, job assignments, training, and benefits. It is also unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an applicant or employee for asserting their rights under the ADA. Additionally, the ADA prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s association with a person with a disability, regardless of the individual’s own disability status or other personal relationships. The ADA applies to employers with 15 or more employees, extending its protections to a broad range of workplaces.
Under the ADA, it is the responsibility of covered employers to offer reasonable accommodation to employees or job applicants with disabilities, unless such accommodations would place an undue burden on the employer’s business operations. Reasonable accommodation refers to modifications in the work environment or customary practices that enable individuals with disabilities to enjoy equal employment opportunities. It is important to note that not all individuals with medical conditions are automatically protected by the ADA. To qualify for protection, an individual must meet the criteria of being qualified for the job and have a disability as defined by the law.
Qualified Individuals With Disabilities
The ADA is in place to safeguard individuals with disabilities from any form of discrimination in the workplace. According to the ADA, an individual is considered to have a disability if they possess a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits a major life activity. Additionally, the ADA extends protection to individuals who have a history of such impairments or those who are regarded as having such impairments. Major life activities encompass a wide range of functions including self-care, manual tasks, sensory abilities (such as seeing or hearing), eating, sleeping, mobility, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentration, cognitive processes, communication, and work itself. Furthermore, major life activities also encompass the operation of important bodily functions, such as the immune system, cell growth, digestion, excretion, neurological functions, respiratory functions, circulatory functions, endocrine functions, and reproductive functions.
A qualified employee or job applicant with a disability is someone who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can fulfill the essential functions of the specific job role. Essential functions refer to the fundamental duties that an employee must be capable of performing, with or without reasonable accommodation. Various factors are taken into account when determining whether a function is essential. These factors may include:
- The reason the position exists is to perform that function
- The number of other employees available to perform the function (or among whom the performance of that function can be distributed)
- The degree of expertise or skill required to perform the function
How the ADA and FMLA Intersect
The ADA and FMLA can intersect in certain situations, granting employees the combined legal protections provided by both laws. When an employee is covered by both the ADA and the FMLA, the employer must ensure that the employee receives the rights and benefits conferred by both legislations. This includes 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave (as stipulated by the FMLA) and reasonable accommodations to enable the employee to perform essential job functions (as mandated by the ADA). The overlapping nature of these laws arises from their shared objective of safeguarding employees with physical and mental health conditions, as well as their use of similar terms such as illness and disability. It is important to note that the ADA and FMLA intersect when an employer has a workforce of 50 or more employees. For instance, if an employee has utilized their allotted FMLA leave, they may still be entitled to additional protections under the ADA, including extended leave, provided they have a qualifying disability. As a result, employers subject to FMLA regulations must consider the potential impact of the ADA on an employee’s FMLA-qualifying leave and make appropriate accommodations accordingly.
Considerations for Navigating the Intersection of the ADA and FMLA
Employers can consider the following strategies to help them navigate the intersection of the ADA and the FMLA:
- Consider each law’s purpose. While the ADA and the FMLA may provide distinct yet similar protections, considering each law’s purpose can guide employers as they navigate the intersection of these laws. For example, the purpose of the ADA is to help qualified individuals with disabilities gain access to the workforce; the FMLA offers employees leave from work for health or family reasons.
- Understand each law’s requirements. The ADA and the FMLA don’t cover the same employers. The FMLA applies to employers with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius, and the ADA covers employers with at least 15 employees. Therefore, some employers will be subject to the ADA but not the FMLA. Further, knowing the rights and requirements of the ADA and the FMLA can allow employers to analyze an employee’s situation and respond appropriately. Employers should also be aware of their own policies as well as state laws and regulations that provide employees with greater benefits than the ADA and the FMLA.
- Evaluate an employee’s situation under each law separately. As ADA and FMLA requirements differ, employers should evaluate each law individually. For example, the ADA’s definition of “disability” differs from the FMLA’s “serious health condition.” Therefore, not every employee with an FMLA-qualifying serious health condition is considered a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA. Since these are different legal concepts, they must be analyzed differently. Employers should consider an employee’s specific situation when determining which law applies.
- Apply the law that provides the most benefit. If the ADA and the FMLA provide an employee with different rights in the same situation, the employee is entitled to whichever provides the greatest benefit. This can also be impacted by an employee’s desires.
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.
In addition, partnering with an HR partner like Melita, who offers a comprehensive HR and benefits compliance service, including dedicated experts in Leave of Absence management, can offer your business valuable protection against potential costly penalties.
With Melita, you can rest assured that our team of HR specialists will be taking proactive and appropriate measures to effectively support your employees and protect your business when it comes to all compliance and regulatory requirements.
For more information or to learn more about the ADA and the FMLA and how it impacts your business and your employees, feel free to reach out and speak to one of our HR specialists today.