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There are some important requirements upon fire service managers whenever an employee requests a leave of absence. The department must provide the employee with an individualized, written notice of his or her rights and responsibilities. This notice must advise the employees that the leave will be counted toward their 12-week-per-year entitlement, that they will be restored to the same or an equivalent positions following the leave, if a fitness-for-duty certification will be required upon return, if paid leave will be substituted for unpaid leave, and other matters regarding health insurance and other benefits.
Failure to give proper notice can create both significant liabilities and embarrassment for the department. For example, the leave cannot be counted against the employee's 12-week entitlement if this notice has not been provided. Or, if the notice does not set forth the requirement that a fitness-for-duty certificate will be required upon return to work, the department cannot request such a certification.
The U.S. Department of Labor has provided assistance to fire departments and other employers in meeting this notice requirement. It has issued a notification form that conveys all of the required information. By inserting brief narrative information and checking various boxes, the department can convey all of the required information. Further, since the form has been issued by the federal agency that wrote the regulations implementing the law, it can be presumed to be effective notification if it is properly completed.
The Labor Department reports that more than 6,300 complaints had been filed against employers for failing to comply with the law as of Sept. 30, 1996. Almost 60 percent were found to be apparent violations. The most common violation was employer refusal to reinstate the employee to the same or a similar position held before taking the leave. A far smaller portion of the violations found were for employers refusing to grant the leave when it was required.
It is important that fire service leaders at all levels be aware of these requirements. Whenever an employee requests family leave (whether verbally or in writing, and whether by name or not), the department's human resources division should be notified immediately. Needless to say, fire department human resources offices need to be thoroughly familiar with this law and to have carefully planned procedures for responding to family leave requests.
Not surprisingly, the law has been quite popular with employees. It is reasonable to expect that an increasing number of fire service personnel will use it when confronted with difficult family situations. Recognizing this, the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division has established a toll-free number 1-800-959-FMLA that provides a brief description of the law and enables callers to request more detailed information to be sent through the mail. This should prove to be valuable for both fire departments and their employees.