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Between a Rock and a Hard Place – Maximum Leave Policies and the ADA

By Gillian McKean Bidgood

Medical leaves pose operational and legal challenges for employers. As we have previously addressed, those challenges multiply when the employee’s medical leave stems from a workplace injury and workers’ compensation laws are added to the employer’s compliance challenges. Indeed, such injuries can result in the employee seeking leave for an indefinite amount of time. To avoid the uncertainty and difficulties caused by employee absences of indefinite duration, some employers have implemented a “maximum leave” policy – a policy that limits the total amount of leave (from all laws and policies) that an employee can take in a given period of time. However, even a very generous maximum leave policy could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as some courts have held that extended leave can be considered a “reasonable accommodation” of an employee’s disabling condition. Similarly, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that “maximum leave” policies are subject to exceptions in the interactive process and that an employer should reasonably accommodate an employee seeking an exception unless doing so will cause an undue hardship. Below are three steps that an employer can take to reduce the risk of an ADA violation when implementing a “maximum leave” policy.

1. Maintain Flexibility

The EEOC has recently obtained multi-million dollar consent decrees and settlements from employers that sought to enforce maximum leave policies with respect to disabled employees.  An employer that implements a maximum leave policy may need to consider granting an employee leave beyond the “maximum” allowed leave as an accommodation under the ADA. Accordingly, employers may wish to consider including a statement in any maximum leave policy which provides that there are situations where leave time beyond the stated limit will be granted. 

2. Communicate Carefully with Employees

Some employers send form letters to employees who are approaching the end of the maximum leave period, which state that the employee must either return to work at the end of the maximum leave period or face termination. The EEOC’s guidance on maximum leave policies suggests that it may consider these communications to violate the ADA. Employers may wish to consider tempering those letters and adding a request that the employee advise the employer by a date certain if the employee believes they may need further leave as an accommodation. 

3. Train Employees

Employers may wish to train employees that leave may be granted as an accommodation under the ADA and that a maximum leave policy does not prohibit such an accommodation. In particular, employers would do well to train human resources officials, other employees who implement the policy, and all managers on the need to maintain flexibility regarding maximum leave policies to avoid running afoul of the ADA.