According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of American households with children, around 20% have a child with special needs. Now, the Department of Labor has ruled that attending meetings about a child's individual education plan (IEP) is an acceptable use of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave.
The ruling comes in the form of an opinion letter. This is where an individual or employer has asked the Labor Department for a ruling in a particular fact situation. Technically, opinion letters only apply to that individual situation, but people and employers can generally rely on it in similar fact situations.
The FMLA requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave each year to employees to care for their own serious health condition or that of an immediate family member, among other reasons.
IEP meetings are part of caring for a child's serious medical condition
In the particular situation addressed by the letter, a woman had two children with serious medical issues. She had requested both intermittent FMLA leave to take them to doctors' appointments and periodic FMLA leave to attend quarterly IEP meetings at school. Her employer approved the intermittent leave but denied her request for the periodic leave for the IEP meetings.
The purpose of the IEP meetings was to review the children's medical and educational needs, wellbeing and progress in school. The meetings were attended by teachers, school administrators and specialty healthcare providers, including a school psychologist, a speech pathologist, an occupational therapist and/or a physical therapist. During the meetings, the children's progress in school was updated and test results, doctors' recommendations and proposals for new therapy were reviewed.
The Labor Department ruled that these meetings should be considered part of "care for a family member...with a serious health condition" as described by the FMLA. They emphasized that caring for a family member's medical condition includes making arrangements for treatment.
Since one reason for the IEP meetings was to make medical decisions about the children's prescribed physical, occupational and speech therapy, the meetings are an essential part of the children's medical care. No doctor need be present or any actual treatment be provided during the meetings.
What should employers know?
If your employee requests periodic FMLA leave for IEP meetings in a similar fact situation, you do have to approve it. However, that should be reasonably manageable, especially because the meetings are typically scheduled in advance. You can require the employee to try to schedule the meetings for the time that is least disruptive and you can ask for a medical certification, if one has not already been provided.