By Dan Gephart, September 19, 2018

Thanks to Facebook, I’m reminded of the birthday of that odd kid from sixth grade who had the massive nosebleed problems and carried a Land of the Lost lunchbox. However, Mark Zuckerberg’s programmers failed to remind me of a more important birthday last month — the FMLA’s 25th. That’s right, the Family and Medical Leave Act has been around for a quarter-century. President Clinton signed the bill into law in early 1993. Six months later – August 5, 1993 to be exact – the law went into effect.

The birthday snub aside, I have a lot of affection for the FMLA. Twenty-four years ago, I took advantage of the then-new law. It was three months after my second son was born, and my wife’s maternity leave was ending. She needed to get back to work. We couldn’t afford for either of us to lose our job. Unfortunately, our initial child-care plans fell through. Then our back-up plans fell through. And our back-up to the back-up plans.

After much deliberation, we decided I’d stay home for the next three months with our two sons – the oldest of whom had yet to reach age two. This could help buy time as we figured out another child care option with which we were comfortable. We’d be living on one salary, but only for a short time.

What a time it was! Those three months at home with our young sons are among the happiest of my life. I can’t begin to describe the immense joy I feel when I think about those days.

Still, I missed work and was happy to go back three months later. What didn’t bring me joy was some of my coworkers’ reactions upon my return. While Michael Keaton is awesome, the Mr. Mom jokes … not so much. I also didn’t appreciate the comments referring to my three months as a vacation. And if you really wanted to get on my bad side, all you had to do was ask what it was like “baby-sitting” for three months. People, it’s not baby-sitting if they are your own kids! Also, spending time with your kids or taking them out in public without your wife doesn’t necessarily make you a great dad. It makes you a dad.

[Stage direction: Dan steps off his soapbox.]

The FMLA has made a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s meant being able to spend time with critically ill parents, bond with newly born or adopted children, recover from a serious health condition, or care for a spouse injured during military service.

Of course, there are people who try to take advantage of the law. I asked my FELTG colleague Barbara Haga – the FMLA expert – for her favorite stories of FMLA misuse. She reminded me about the letter carrier who invoked FMLA because of a back problem that caused numbness in his left arm and left leg. During his FMLA time off, he played eight games in an out-of-state national softball tournament. When confronted about how he could play softball but not deliver mail, he testified that softball wasn’t really a physical sport. Oh, and he also used the time to travel to Alaska.

Barbara has a new FMLA case that she’s discussing in her classes: “A GS-9 medical technologist with the VA took FMLA to bond with his infant child but was found to have been working at a private clinic for some of that time. Needless to say, he was removed, and the removal was affirmed by the AJ.”

My personal favorite story of FMLA abuse involves the federal employee who took FMLA only to be discovered using his job-protected time off to act in a movie featuring the recently departed Bandit himself — Burt Reynolds.

It’s not just federal employees. The private sector stories are even more ludicrous. Employees have used FMLA to put on a new roof, do jail time, and finish Christmas shopping. In that last case, the employee’s doctor cited the employee’s need for “retail therapy.”

The overall benefits of FMLA outweigh the challenges. But man, there are some serious challenges. Employees misuse FMLA in the most creative ways possible. You are the gatekeeper, and it’s not an easy task.

As always, FELTG is here to help. Join us in early 2019 for the webinar series Too Sick to Work: Absence Due to Illness. Also, you can register early for Absence, Leave Abuse & Medical Issues Week, which takes place on March 25-29, 2019 in Washington, DC.  We have a  star-studded cast of leave experts — Deborah Hopkins, Katherine Atkinson, Meghan Droste, and the aforementioned Barbara Haga. Gephart@FELTG.com

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