Demystifying family leave for veterinary professionals

January 6, 2019
Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD

Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services exclusively to veterinarians. He can be reached via e-mail at info@veterinarylaw.com. Dr. Allen serves on dvm360 magazine's Editorial Advisory Board.

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With a variety of different state and federal policies, knowing what leave you're entitled to can be an arduous task.

All veterinarians who experience the joys of new parenthood are bound to wonder how this major life event will impact their work life. At the same time, they often worry about work commitments stealing time and attention away from life as a parent. People who experience an illness personally or in their family have the same questions.

Over the last few decades, federal and state governments have begun to take steps to address these concerns through a dizzying array of overlapping and frequently inconsistent pieces of legislation. The effort is to be applauded; the state of family leave law in this country is far superior to what it was when I began in private practice. But the laws are extremely confusing, and they change constantly.

Let's have a look at where we are and where we're headed when it comes to mandated employer accommodation for a dramatic change in family circumstances.

It's way more than a new baby

Most employees who wonder if they're entitled to family-related time off are expecting the birth of a new baby. Before the 1990s and the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by President Bill Clinton, there was little in the way of guaranteed time away from work (compensated or not) provided by federal law. Most states also had little to say on the issue.

The passage of FMLA in 1993 provided unpaid time away from work for many employees. But the coverage is not nearly as broad as many people believe. Not all employees are covered, and many life-altering events are exempt from the law.

Here's what FMLA does provide: up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work each year, mainly for the following reasons:

> The birth and care of a child

> The adoption of a child or placement of a child for foster care

> The care of an immediate family member (spouse, child or parent) with a serious health condition

> Medical leave when you're unable to work because of a serious health condition

Compare this to the states

Since enactment of FMLA, most states have created their own versions of this law, but employer obligations vary dramatically from state to state. For example, in Mississippi, employer mandates are nearly identical to those called for in the federal legislation, but worker rights in California are far broader.

In order to highlight some of the potential coverage issues veterinary professionals may encounter, let's compare the federal FMLA law to one of the more generous states-New York-as to what's covered and who qualifies for coverage. (Note: I strongly encourage readers to investigate recent changes in state and federal law, as the rules on family and medical leave are always changing.)

Don't confuse paid and unpaid family leave

Federal FMLA legislation does not require that employees be paid during the 12 weeks their job is required to be held open. Rather, they must turn to savings, help from family, or private or public disability insurance to pay expenses incurred during the permitted time off.

Compare this with New York law. Individuals in this state who qualify for family or medical leave are also entitled to receive funds during this leave. A clear statutory formula determines how this economic benefit will be calculated, based on the employee's historical average pay rate compared to the pay rate of other New Yorkers doing similar work.

Interestingly, New York's Paid Family Leave law provides its benefits through a payroll tax on all workers, which is remitted to the state government by employers. The family and medical leave disbursement is “piggybacked” on the state's employee disability law, which covers people who are out of work due to an injury or illness. (Consequently, the New York law does not cover heath issues related to the employee him- or herself.)

There are many things federal law lacks

States such as California and New York, which have magnanimous legislatures and sophisticated labor law enforcement infrastructures, tend to provide family and medical leave coverage that's far more expansive than U.S. law, regardless of whether they offer any pay during the worker's absence.

Here are some specific examples of states like New York trying to “fill in the blanks” present in the federal FMLA:

> New York extends paid family and medical leave to all employees. Federal law limits its unpaid protections to employees of firms with 50 or more employees. Other states fall somewhere in between; for example, family and medical leave rules in Maine impact employers with 15 or more employees.

> Federal FMLA rules cover a short list of relatives for whom one may take leave in order to provide postsurgical or convalescent care. New York's family leave law allows employees to take eight weeks (as of 2018) leave to care for grandparents, in-laws, domestic partners and others. Bonus: The coverage increases to 12 weeks by 2020.

> New York, unlike many jurisdictions, applies Paid Family Medical Leave not only to full-time employees but to many part-time workers as well.

States trump feds on which needs qualify for leave

There are a lot of family circumstances beyond having children and caring for ill relatives for which employees would love to take time off. And some states recognize this wider range of family needs, extending leave protection for, among other things, the following events:

> Death of a family member

> Certain ceremonies related to military service

> Family preparations related to active military deployment

> Childcare arrangements related to deployment

> Legal arrangement related to military service

The landscape has changed

In some instances, veterinarians who work for smaller practices may well find themselves out of luck when it comes to rights under the federal FMLA. Because the law applies only to employers with more than 50 employees, a substantial number of veterinary practices fall outside the coverage of federal law.

That said, there are two potential routes for veterinarians and team members to consider exploring if they live in a state where family leave coverage is not mandated.

Consider these two possibilities:

  1. If you work for a private clinic owned by a larger group of clinics (or a veterinary corporation), that group could be under common ownership. If so, this might meet the 50-employee threshold.
  2. If you have an employment contract, you have a negotiation tool. If you feel that you'll need at least unpaid family leave, consider putting the issue on the table when looking at your next job or when your existing contract comes up for renewal.  

Christopher J. Allen, DVM, JD, is president of the Associates in Veterinary Law P.C., which provides legal and consulting services exclusively to veterinarians. He can be reached via email at info@veterinarylaw.com. Dr. Allen serves on dvm360 magazine's Editorial Advisory Board.

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