FMLA Certification of Need for Leave
Medical certification may be required for FMLA leave to be taken by an employee who has a serious health condition or who has a family member with a such a condition. Employees may have a number of questions and concerns about the certification, however, ranging from what exactly a certification is, to the timing of when such certification may be required up, and the extent to which an employer can inquire about a medical condition.
FMLA Certification: When is it required?
An employer can ask for, and may require, a medical certification from any employee who is taking FMLA-related leave based on theirs or a family member's serious health condition. Most of the time, an employer should ask for this certification right when the employee provides notice that they need to take time off, or within five business days of the notice. Once the employer has asked for it, they must give their employee at least 15 days to have the form completed and returned.
If an employer doesn't ask for a certification shortly after a request for FMLA leave is made, that doesn't necessarily mean that they can't ask for it later. If an employer later has reason to doubt whether the leave being taken is necessary or appropriate, they can still request the certification at such time. Also, if the employer has doubts about the duration for the leave an employee is taking, they may ask for medical certification.
Sometimes employees or family members may run into situations where their condition worsens or where a longer period of recovery is required than was originally anticipated and set forth in a certification. In these cases, an employer may ask for another certification to establish such additional needs. Generally, however, an employer is not allowed to ask for certification more frequently than once every 30 days unless they have grounds to suspect some sort of abuse or misuse of FMLA leave.
Medical Certification: What is required?
Certification of need for FMLA leave doesn't mean that an employee's medical records become an open book for the employer to read through. In short, a medical certification is a relatively short form that is filled out by a health care provider and provided to the employer to establish a patient or family member's medical condition that requires FMLA-protected leave. Within the form, some key requirements are that the health care provider select from one of a few different categories of serious health conditions, and then set out enough medical facts to establish that serious health condition.
The form has other sections too, including some related to the amount of time which the medical condition has existed and is anticipated to last. Also, the extent to which the condition impacts or entirely prevents an employee from working should be described by the health care provider, as well. If it turns out that a form is incomplete or was filled in incorrectly, an employer may ask for clarification and/or for the form to be filled out completely. In these cases, the employer must specify in writing what information or clarification is required, and the employee has a right to a reasonable amount of extra time (at least 7 calendar days) to get this done.
Privacy Concerns with Certifications
Employees may understandably have concerns about privacy when it comes to their employer gathering information about their health condition. Still, the law permits an employer to get enough information, or "medical facts", from a medical provider to establish that an employee or their family member actually has a serious medical need allowing for FMLA leave. Further, the certification form itself has certain categories of "serious health conditions" that a health care provider must pick from (including, for example, pregnancy, hospital care, chronic conditions).
Last, but not least, it should be noted that employers and especially direct supervisors are limited by law as to how they can contact an employee's health care provider and what information they can request. Employers are allowed to call health care providers to verify a certification is authentic, or to ask for clarification of a medical certification. But for the latter, they must use an Human Resources professional, an administrator, or someone in management other than the employee's direct supervisor to make this contact. Furthermore, the employee has to provide written authorization to their health care provider for this information to be released. Employers are not allowed to ask for information beyond that required or contained in the certification form, and in no case are they allowed to demand an employee's medical records.