How employees can use FMLA to party in Vegas

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When employee Travis Loyd was caught fishing while on FMLA leave, his excuse seemed nothing short of bravado.

“I was under doctor's orders to go fishing," the top Chicago official said in a public statement last week. Turns out it was true: "The doctor told me I was going to lose some organs if I didn't do something.”

Before Loyd was appointed deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources in 2009, he had been a professional fisherman, and since 1998 he had earnt more than $31,000 in competition winnings. But in 2013, when he partook in fishing competitions on FMLA leave, questions were asked.

While going fishing was technically valid because of the doctor’s recommendation, the DNR was able to successfully rid themselves of Loyd because his activities were paid. This was in accordance with the FMLA clause: "An employee shall not be granted FMLA designated leave of absence for the purpose of seeking or taking employment elsewhere."

Another recent case demonstrates just how far the law will go.

When Chicago Park District employee Beverly Ballard’s mother discovered she had terminal cancer, she decided it was time to live it up in Vegas while she could. Although her mother had no medical treatment in Las Vegas, Ballard used FMLA leave to vacation with her, and the pair wined and dined their way through the sights and sounds of the city. When Ballard returned to work, she soon found she was without a job. Upset, she sued: and won.

Because Ballard’s mother’s “basic medical, hygienic, and nutritional needs did not change while she was in Las Vegas, and Beverly continued to assist her with those needs during the trip”, the court said in January, Ballard’s FMLA claim was tenable.

However, this month New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney introduced legislation called the Family and Medical Leave Enhancement Act, which would extend the FMLA protection to businesses with 25 or more employees. Currently, the FMLA only applies to businesses with 50 or more employees. The act would also provide up to 24 hours of unpaid “Parental Involvement and Family Wellness leave”, in order to allow parents and grandparents to attend school meetings or take family members to medical appointments.

The act is a follow-up to a 2008 promise from President Obama, when he said it was time to “dramatically expand the Family and Medical Leave Act. Since more Americans are working for small businesses, I'll expand FMLA to cover businesses with as few as 25 employees – this will reach millions of American workers who aren't covered today. … We'll allow parents to take 24 hours of annual leave to join school activities with their kids.”

This month marks 21 years since President Clinton signed the FMLA into law.

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