Absence of Compliance

Mark DeRubeis, CEO of Premier Medical Associates

When the city of Pittsburgh passed a paid sick-leave ordinance in 2015, many companies worried what the impact might be.

One of the key provisions in the ordinace stated that employers had to give an employee an hour of paid sick leave for every 35 hours worked.

For Premier Medical Associates, a physician practices with two office slocated within the city limits, this meant reassessing how the company defined different types of leave.

"We always handled time off from work specific ways, meaning we had certain hours that were called personal and certain that were called vacation," said Mark DeRubeis, CEO of Premier.

In order to be in compliance, the company realized it needed to reclassify some personal time as sick time. This mean the 380-employee company, with only five who worked in the city, would have to rewrite all of its employee-leave policies to be in compliance with the new regulations.

"It was going to require us to relax some requirements and that would have been very, very challenging." DeRubeis said.

Yet, at the end of December, a judge quashed the city ordianance.

If the ruling is upheld "and (the ordinance) doesn't come to fruition - that was time and energy that comes to naught." DeRubeis said.

The ordinance serves as an example of why absence management - managing employee time off and making sure it complies with local, state and federal leave laws - remains such a problem for businesesses.

According to the Department of Labor, only 40 percent of employers fully comply with Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requirements.

"I can tell you that there are multiple layers of employer coverage and employee eligibility that quite honestly you have to be on top of your game and pay very close attention in order to comprehend," said Ed Yost, HR business partner of employee/management relations, organizational learning and development at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Linda Croushore, directory of diability services at UPMC WorkPartners, which provides health and productivity services to companies, said 30 states have their own FMLA standards, which means if employers have sites in multiple states, they have to understand the requirements for each along with federal and local manadates.

Pennsylvania is not one of the 30 with its own regulations, but, if a Pennsylvania-based company has offices in another state with such regulations, that means the company has additional regulations to adhere to.

"[Regulations are] probably an ever-changing challenge for a human resource team," she said.

Case law also changes requirements. Take the Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2009, the ADA, now the ADAAA (Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act),, changed how it defines disabilities and expects employers to make more accommodations for workers.

Croushore cites a case in which a mechanic was fired after he could not obtain Department of Transportation clearance to drive due to high blood pressure. Yet, since he only drove about 5 percent of the time, a judge ruled the employer did not make reasonable accommodations and violated the ADAAA.

Keeping up with how cases change the regulations can give anyone a headache.

"Where it is challenging is figuring out how you can be creative and how you can work with your employees," Croushore said.

Even though absence management remains a challenge, Holly Moyer, assistant vice president and director of absence management practice at Alliant Employee Benefits, said she recommends employers follow a few tips to assure they comply with best practices.

"Evaluate policies on an annual basis," she said. "[They] may change in terms of what is required of them from a compliance standpoint."

But, she also urges companies to evaluate internal methods for handling absence management.

"Periodic evaluation of your processes is a best practice," she said. "Do an ... audit of your own program."

Moyer said many companies struggle to keep up with postings and notifications. It's essential that employers correctly communicate policies to employees - that's one of the challenges of being compliant, she said.

When evaluating new policies versus an existing process of dealing with absence management, Moyer reminds companies to look at what they have posted and make sure they are current with the latest requirements.

Also, companies need to train managers to understand policies around absence management. Yost said managers sometimes want to fire an employee who has been off for several weeks for now showing up to work. But if it turns out FMLA or ADAAA protects the employee's absences, firing him or her could lead to problems for the organization.

"If they are not used to having people out on absences, FMLA are four random letters they may have heard of; it is not first and foremost in their thoughts, and [that's] why it is important for HR to continue to provide them with education and information and guidance," he said.

The experts agree that human resource professionals should join a professional organization, such as SHRM, or Disability Management Employer Coalition (DERM).

Croushore is trying to organize a Pittsburgh chapter of DERM, which would help employers better manage absences. Companies that are doing well could share what works with others, and those who are having challenges can be connected to resources, she said.

And, hiring and outside human resource firm to help evaluate policies and keep a company abreast of new developments always helps. The experts agree that following best practices when it comes to absence management makes sense for the company and its employees.

"You want to create efficiency for the organization, and you want to create a good experience to employees," Moyer said.

Meghan Holohan is a freelance writer.