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Employee Leave: Clarifying STD, FMLA, And ADA

In addition to the federal requirements under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many states, and even many localities and municipalities, have enacted employee leave laws. Due to the various leave requirements, employers may have a hard time understanding how different leaves coordinate with each other and how wage replacement benefits fit into the equation.

The purpose of this article is to clarify some of the differences between the federal FMLA, the ADA and short-term disability (STD). Employers must keep in mind that state and/or local leave laws may also need to be considered.

STD is not a form of job-protected leave with rights to continued health coverage and job reinstatement. STD is merely a wage replacement benefit that employees may receive when they are unable to work for certain reasons. Eligibility for STD benefits has no bearing on eligibility for FMLA leave. Any short- or long-term disability benefit provided to an employee is separate from an employer’s obligations under the federal FMLA and other state leave laws. An employee who is eligible for STD benefits while on federal FMLA leave does not receive any extra leave benefits.

The FMLA, however, is job-protected leave that provides eligible employees with job reinstatement rights and continued health insurance benefits for the duration of FMLA leave (up to 12 weeks in any 12-month period). If an employee on FMLA leave is also receiving STD benefits, it is worth noting that in this situation, neither the employer nor employee can require the substitution of available paid time off. This is because leave under a disability plan, such as STD, is not unpaid leave.

Leave must also be considered as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Need for leave under the ADA may arise when a disabled employee exhausts job-protected leave (such as under the FMLA), or when he or she is ineligible for such leave. The amount of time that will be considered reasonable will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of the situation. Leave as a reasonable accommodation includes the right to return to the employee's original position. However, if an employer determines that holding open the job will cause an undue hardship, then it must consider whether there are alternatives that permit the employee to complete the leave and return to work. In addition, group health benefits are not required to be maintained during an employee’s leave under the ADA. Therefore, continuation of these benefits is determined based on plan terms.

It may be helpful for employers to think of STD benefits as wages an employee may be eligible for when on leave, but that do not provide for the employee’s leave. The ADA comes in when FMLA is exhausted or unavailable to a disabled employee.

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