It’s that time of the year when the children go back to school and young adults head to college.

The change also includes parent demands that frequently impact the workplace.

During this time of year, employers should be broad in their thinking, recognizing that dads and moms alike feel the overwhelming pressure of parental obligations.

One of these responsibilities may be to attend meetings at a child’s school related to special education requirements.

The Department of Labor recently issued guidance on whether a parent attending certain school meetings can be a “qualifying reason” for leave, protected by the Family Medical Leave Act.

The opinion letter originated from a parent who sought advice from the Labor Department on whether his wife’s employer was required to provide intermittent leave for her to attend meetings to discuss the child’s Individualized Education Program, or commonly called IEP.

The parent described that his two children suffered from serious health conditions, as defined by the Family Medical Leave Act, and his wife’s employer granted intermittent leave for medical appointments, but not IEP meetings.

To qualify for the leave, a child must suffer from a “serious health condition,” which includes under the FMLA an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves patient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.

If a health care provider certifies that a child suffers from a serious health condition, the child’s parent is entitled to up to 12 workweeks of job-protected, unpaid FMLA leave per year to care for the child of the employee.

An employee may use FMLA leave intermittently (for instance, one hour at a time) or on a reduced leave schedule when medically necessary because of a family member’s serious health condition.

The Labor Department opined that the wife’s attendance at the IEP meetings was a qualifying reason for leave because the FMLA includes a provision “to make arrangements for changes in care” as a qualifying reason.

The department said this includes “taking leave to help make medical decisions on behalf of a hospitalized parent or to make arrangements to find suitable childcare for a child with a disability.”

The agency referenced a previous case wherein a parent qualified for leave to find day care for her daughter with an autism spectrum disorder and other serious health conditions.

The Labor Department also cited a previous opinion letter where a qualifying reason for leave included the attendance of care conferences related to the health condition of an employee’s mother because her attendance at these conferences was “clearly essential to the employee’s ability to provide appropriate physical or psychological care” to her mother.

The department found that the wife’s attendance at the IEP meetings is “essential to [her] ability to provide appropriate physical or psychological care” to her children.

This is because his wife attends the meetings to coordinate medical decisions concerning their child’s “medically-prescribed speech, physical and occupational therapy; to discuss your children’s well being and progress with the providers of such services; and to ensure that your children’s school environment is suitable to their medical, social and academic needs.”

Thus, as the school year begins, if an employee otherwise qualifies for FMLA in that the employee has worked for the employer for at least a year, worked 1,250 hours in the preceding 12 months, and the company employs at least 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius, the employee may be entitled to attend certain school meetings related to a child with a serious health condition.

Employers are entitled to medical documentation just like any other leave associated with FMLA.

Moreover, time off is unpaid unless the employee otherwise has paid time off or some other paid leave benefit to run concurrent with the unpaid leave.

The employee does not have to specifically ask for FMLA to be eligible. Managers need to be trained to recognize that a leave may be qualifying so that the manager can refer the employee to the appropriate resource internally who administers the leave.

Employers need to understand the broad application.

I am frequently invited to attend care conferences for my mother in a nursing home and, based on this guidance, these conferences would likely be covered by the FMLA.

Employers ultimately should be as understanding as possible with the overwhelming stress that many individuals feel as a result of the pressures and responsibilities resulting from children, parents or spouses with serious health conditions.

Karen Michael is an attorney with Richmond-based KarenMichael PLC. She can be reached at kmichael@karenmichaelconsulting.com.

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