DOL Opinion Letter Signs Off on FMLA Leave for Certain School Meetings

November 8, 2019

In a recent opinion letter, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) established that parents attending certain school meetings for their children’s benefit are entitled to Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave for the absences. As the letter explained, the FMLA protects the meetings because attending them constitutes caring for a family member with a serious health condition.

Background on IDEA and FMLA

Federal law—specifically, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—requires public schools to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for special needs students. The IEP is developed collaboratively with the child and the parents, teachers, school administrators, therapists, and other support personnel through Committee on Special Education (CSE) meetings. The meetings are held four times per year, during which the participants:

  • Provide updates about the student’s progress and areas of concern;
  • Review new information about the child’s medical condition(s) and needs;
  • Update or set new education goals; and
  • Generally ensure the school environment is suitable to the child’s medical, social, and academic needs.

The meetings have a substantial medical component, including discussions about the child’s medically prescribed speech, physical, and occupational therapy.

Federal law permits eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave per year to care for a family member with “a serious health condition.” They may use the leave intermittently when medically necessary because of a family member’s serious health condition.

The DOL’s letter answered the question of whether a parent’s attendance at an IEP meeting qualified as “care,” triggering the FMLA protections. The agency found that attending the meetings addressing the educational and special medical needs of a child with a serious health condition (certified by a healthcare provider) is a qualifying reason for taking intermittent FMLA leave.

DOL Weighs In

According to the DOL, “caring” for a family member includes arranging changes in care, which encompasses IEP meetings. The agency noted its analysis was consistent with earlier conclusions, including a 1998 opinion letter in which an employee was found to be entitled to take FMLA leave to attend “care conferences related to her mother’s health condition.” The daughter’s attendance at the conferences was “clearly essential to [her] ability to provide appropriate physical or psychological care” to her mother. Here, the agency concluded:

  • A parent’s attendance at IEP meetings is essential to the ability to provide appropriate “physical or psychological care” to the child.
  • Attendance by the child’s doctor isn’t required for the meeting to qualify for FMLA leave.
  • Making “arrangements for changes in care” isn’t limited to facilities that provide medical treatment, e.g., switching nursing homes.

Although the DOL’s opinion letter was drafted in response to an inquiry about a CSE/IEP meeting, it included the following: “The analysis and conclusion in this opinion letter apply to any meetings held pursuant to the IDEA, and any applicable state or local law, regardless of the term used for such meetings.” Thus, you should be aware the FMLA protections aren’t limited to the specific meeting discussed in the letter. A broad spectrum of school meetings about the care for a child with serious health conditions may qualify for the leave.

You should update your FMLA administrators about the opinion letter and its impact on their practices and policies. The letter is just that, an opinion. It isn’t legally binding. However, the agency’s letters signal how it will act if the situation is raised in an investigation or adversarial proceeding. Moreover, courts often follow the letters. Consequently, you should treat the new letter as important guidance on the treatment of CES/IEP meetings under the FMLA.

Bottom Line

The DOL’s opinion letter is a win for both employees and employers. It allows employees to take the time they need to ensure their children are safe and thriving at their schools. In contrast, failures in the school environment lead to unexpected absences and damaged morale, which are harmful to both you and the employee. Guidance on the treatment of the meetings under the FMLA allows you to work collaboratively with employees to address the issue.

This article, slightly modified to note recent updates, was featured in the October issue of the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter, which is co-edited by Axley Brynelson Attorneys Saul Glazer and Michael Modl and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.

Jeremy Lange
Jeremy Lange