New FMLA Regulations Explain Military-Caregiver Leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), will be the talk of the HR world next week when the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), formally issues its new revised final regulations. The new regulations finally define the scope of two new types of FMLA leave that were created by the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2008 (NDAA). These two new kinds of leave, known as active-duty leave and military-caregiver leave, provide FMLA leave for the families of servicemembers called to active duty or injured in the line of duty. In an earlier post, (New FMLA Regulations Define Scope of Active-Duty Leave), we addressed the regulations dealing with active-duty leave.  Now we examine the regulations on military-caregiver leave.

The NDAA provides that “an eligible employee who is the spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin of a covered servicemember shall be entitled to a total of 26 workweeks of leave during a [single] 12-month period to care for the servicemember.”   This type of leave is different from other forms of FMLA leave, including Active-Duty leave, in that it provides for up to 26 weeks of leave rather than 12 weeks.  In addition, the NDAA also provides that a covered servicemember’s “next of kin” is eligible to take FMLA leave to care for the servicemember.

Defining “Next of Kin”

The NDAA left several questions unanswered. The first group of questions involved the phrase “next of kin.”  Just who is a “next of kin”?  Is it just one person or a group of relatives? Can the employee designate his or her “next of kin”?  Can the employer require an employee to prove his or relation to the servicemember? The new regulations address all of these questions.

The final regulations define a servicemember’s “next of kin” as the servicemember’s nearest blood relative, other than the covered servicemember’s spouse, parent, son, or daughter, in the following order of priority: blood relatives who have been granted legal custody of the servicemember by court decree or statutory provisions, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and first cousins, unless the covered servicemember has specifically designated in writing another blood relative as his or her nearest blood relative for purposes of military-caregiver leave under FMLA, in which case the designated individual shall be deemed to be the covered servicemember’s next of kin.

The final regulations also provide that all family members sharing the closest level of familial relationship to the servicemember shall be considered the servicemember’s next of kin, unless the servicemember has specifically designated an individual as his or her next of kin for military-caregiver leave purposes. In the absence of a designation, where a servicemember has three siblings, all three siblings will be considered the servicemember’s next of kin.

Finally, the regulations permit an employer to confirm an employee’s status as a covered servicemember’s next of kin.

How Much Leave Is Available?

The next set of questions left open by the NDAA involved the amount of military-caregiver leave that could be taken by an employee. Is this type of leave a one-time entitlement?  Can an employee take more than one period of military caregiver leave to care for multiple covered servicemembers with a serious injury or illness, or the same covered servicemember with multiple serious injuries or illnesses? How should the “single 12-month period” should be determined?

The final rule explains that an eligible employee may take no more than 26 workweeks of military caregiver leave in any “single 12-month period.” This section also provides that the 26-workweek entitlement is to be applied as a per servicemember, per-injury entitlement, meaning that an eligible employee may take 26 workweeks of leave to care for one covered servicemember in a “single 12-month period” and then take another 26 workweeks of leave in a different “single 12-month period” to care for another covered servicemember or to care for the same covered servicemember with a subsequent serious injury or illness. The final rule also provides that the “single 12-month period” begins on the first day the eligible employee takes military-caregiver leave and ends 12 months after that date.

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