The Family and Medical Leave Act provides for 12-weeks of unpaid leave for individuals working for companies with 50 or more employees. New legislation has expanded the total amount of leave to 26 weeks for any employee who is the spouse, son, daughter, parent or “next of kin” of a member of the armed forces who needs care resulting from a serious injury or illness incurred while on active duty.

The expanded leave may only be used during a single 12-month period, and the 26 weeks is cumulative to standard FMLA. Accordingly, an employee who uses 12 weeks of FMLA leave for their own medical condition, would have a balance of 14 weeks of expanded leave to use for a relative in the armed forces during that same 12-month period. The addition of the term “next of kin” applies only to this expanded leave, and is defined by the FMLA as “closest blood relative.”

In related news . . .

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently proposed a number of changes to the FMLA regulations. Key changes that would benefit employers include the following:

Medical Certifications: The new regulations would allow employers, under limited circumstances, to directly contact the employer’s health care provider for clarification or authentication of FMLA medical certification forms. Employers would still have to comply with the privacy requirements of HIPAA, but would no longer be frustrated by medical certifications which, in the DOL’s words, are “vague, ambiguous or non-responsive.”

Continuing Treatment: Employees with a serious health condition requiring continuing treatment but no prescribed medication would have to receive follow-up care from their health care provider within 30 days of the initial visit to qualify under FMLA.

Notice Requirements Tightened: The open-ended notice requirement for employees who become aware of the need for FMLA leave less than 30 days from the anticipated commencement of the leave would be shortened to the same day or next business day.

Fitness-for-Duty: The current FMLA regulations severely limit the circumstances under which an employer can require a “fitness-for-duty” certification from a returning employee’s health care provider. The new regulations would increase employer rights in demanding fitness-for-duty certificates, and also expand the type of information an employer can require.

These proposed regulations are currently under review while the DOL considers comments that have been received from the public and various advocacy groups.