Legislature Adds Two-Week Bereavement Leave To Oregon Family Leave Act

Governor Kitzhaber last week signed House Bill 2950 ("HB 2950"), which expands the Oregon Family Leave Act ("OFLA") to include bereavement leave.  The change will become effective on January 1, 2014.

Under the new law, an OFLA-eligible employee (who works for OFLA-covered employer) may take up to two weeks of leave for three death-related purposes:  attending the funeral or alternative to a funeral of a family member; making arrangements necessitated by the death of the family member; or grieving the death of the family member.  The law incorporates the existing definition of “family member,” meaning that an employee make take the leave for the death of a spouse, same sex domestic partner, parent, parents-in-law (including the parents of same-sex domestic partners), grandparent, grandchild, child, stepchild, or child of the employee’s same sex domestic partner. 

The eligible employee must provide notice of the leave, but unlike other kinds of OFLA leave, the employer may not reduce the 2-week leave entitlement for failure to timely provide notice.  The leave must be completed within 60 days of the date on which the employee receives notice of the death. 

There are a couple of additional quirks in the new law.  An employer may not require the eligible employee to take multiple periods of leave concurrently if more than one family member dies during the one-year leave period.  In other words, if an employee has the misfortune to lose two family members in rapid succession, the employer cannot require that the employee take bereavement leave for multiple deaths concurrently.  In addition, the general prohibitions against family members who work for the same employer taking concurrent leave does not apply to bereavement leave; spouses or same sex domestic partners who work for the same employer may take concurrent bereavement leave.

Employers should start preparing now by reviewing and updating their handbooks and leave policies to be ready to comply with the new law when it becomes effective in January.

Recordkeeping: The Often Overlooked Element of FMLA Compliance

Most employers grapple with the better-known aspects of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), such as determining whether an employee’s illness constitutes a serious medical condition, obtaining required certification or providing adequate coverage for workers on intermittent leave. All too often employers focus on the leave itself and breathe a sigh of relief when notice is provided confirming the dates of leave or when the employee has resumed his or her usual schedule. But an employer’s compliance with federal law includes the obligation to maintain adequate records related to the leave. Failure to do so can have significant consequences.

What Records Must You Keep?

FMLA recordkeeping requirements can be found in a single regulation, 29 C.F.R. § 825.500. That regulation requires employers to keep and preserve records in accordance with the recordkeeping requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  Records must be retained for no less than three years. Although no particular order or form is required, the records must be capable of being reviewed or copied. 

Covered employers with eligible employees must also maintain records that include basic payroll and data identifying the employee’s compensation. Failure to maintain accurate records can have significant consequences for employers, who have the burden of establishing eligibility for leave. Accuracy is important:  for example, the regulations demand that records document hours of leave taken in cases of leave in increments less than a full day.  Lack of suitable records documenting when leave was taken can also doom an employer’s defense to claims for leave. Special rules apply to joint employment and to employees who are not covered by or are exempt from the FLSA.

Importantly, copies of employee notices of leave furnished to the employer under FMLA, if in writing, and copies of all general and specific written notices given to employees are required under FMLA regulations. The required copies may be maintained in employee personnel files. In the event of a dispute between the employer and an eligible employee regarding designation of leave as FMLA leave, employers must present the required records, including any written statement from the employer or employee regarding the reasons for the designation and for the disagreement. All too often employers fail to audit their own personnel files to confirm that the required documentation is in place.

Documents (defined to include written and electronic records) describing employee benefits or employer policies and practices regarding the taking of paid and unpaid leaves must also be maintained, along with records of premium payments, if any, of employee benefits.

Compounding The Recordkeeping Requirement:  Don't Forget About Confidentiality

Of particular consequence for employers is the requirement that records and documents relating to medical certifications, recertifications or medical histories of employees or employees’ family members, created for purposes of FMLA, shall be maintained as confidential medical records separately from the usual personnel files. In those circumstances where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also applies, employers have a duty to maintain such records in conformity with the confidentiality requirements of the ADA. 

Be Proactive, Audit Your Records

Well-intentioned employers recognize that it’s never too late to conduct a compliance audit to determine whether their organization is complying with FMLA requirements.  Identifying and fixing any problems with your recordkeeping processes now could save a lot of headaches down the road.