Linking family medical leave administration with group disability plan administration can help employers cope with shifts in workplace demographics and evolving family needs.

When an employee gets into a car accident, the employee might file both a Family and Medical Leave Act claim and a short-term disability claim.

When the employee’s elderly parent falls and breaks a hip, the employee might go out on family medical leave–and later file an STD claim, if the stress of caring for the elderly parent takes its toll on the employee.

Handling employee leave in an efficient way that complies with the relevant laws and regulations must be a key objective for an employer that wants to succeed in this changing economy.

The origins of the FMLA

Congress enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 in an effort to address the needs of the modern family.

The traditional two-parent, one-income family is no longer the norm in the United States. Whether by choice or out of necessity, many households have 2 wage earners. There are more single parent households today, and there are more people, including the majority of baby boomers, who are serving as caregivers for elderly parents. Families also face on-the-job stress along with family matters, ranging from childhood illnesses to teen pregnancy that may require time away from work.

Employees covered by the FMLA can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for a newborn or adopted child, to care for an ailing parent or immediate family member, or to deal with a serious personal or family health condition.

The United Auto Workers Community Action Program reported in 2006 that more than 50 million Americans have taken job-protected leave to bond with a new baby, care for a seriously ill family member, or recuperate from their own serious illness since the law was enacted. The U.S. Postal Service says 18.4% of its 620,688 employees took FMLA leave in 2006.

Increases in utilization are expected to continue as the workforce and general population become more knowledgeable about the FMLA.

Under the FMLA, employers are required to track all affected leaves, and they must ensure that they have explained the program to all employees and are treating all employees consistently and fairly. This can be a difficult proposition for large employers, and it can be especially challenging for any employer with employees in multiple states.

In addition to wanting help with absences related to short-term disability and the FMLA, employers are looking for help with absence resulting from ordinary illnesses and injuries, casual absence, Family Rights Act leave, maternity leave, paternal leave, bereavement leave, sabbatical leave, military leave and jury duty.

Many employers want a single source for administering all leave programs, including STD and FMLA programs.

How to integrate

How well we succeed at integrating leave management with disability claims administration is directly related to one’s commitment to prevention.

One of the key factors involved in the managed disability equation is having a well-defined, flexible wellness program that can be tailored to each organization’s special needs. Healthy employees tend to be happier and more productive employees.

A second key factor is having a well-balanced employee assistance program with immediate, unlimited telephone access 24/7, and work-life services. Providing a source for immediate personal service from professionals that offer support, referrals, and problem resolution for both personal and work issues can be a tremendous absence prevention vehicle.

A third key factor is availability of a comprehensive leave management administration service. The service should offer detailed STD, absence tracking and reporting tools.

Historically, employers would seek out vendors to administer their Employee Assistance Program, one for their short-term disability program, another for their FMLA administration, and so on. However, the trend today is to utilize a vendor that can deliver all services under one roof. Integrating these services will provide optimal results whether they are done in-house or outsourced, and there is a growing trend for outsourcing primarily with mid-sized to large-sized companies.

Benefits of integration

Absenteeism has both direct and indirect impacts on an organization’s bottom line. Therefore, any program that can help reduce the number of absences or the length of each absence is preferred.

Outside vendors that link leave administration with disability administration can provide a single point of contact for absences, allowing for easier administration than would be possible if the services were being provided by multiple vendors.

Having a single source to call or notify for an absence of any type simplifies the process for employees (i.e. notifying the employee’s immediate supervisor, leave management administrator, short-term disability claims administrator, etc.). That being said, it is reasonable to assume that, from the employee’s perspective, having a single vendor who is able to integrate benefits administration should increase employee satisfaction and morale.

Integrating STD and FMLA leave administration also can help the employer, in part by ensuring that the administrators who handle both types of leave will be able to share vital information, such as reported absences and disability claim information, and to reduce cost and duplication of effort.

The integrated approach allows the administrator to make one call to the doctor or make one request for a physician statement for both FMLA and STD claims, avoid having to coordinate with an outside source to share information on a claim, and minimize the confusion about who to call if the employer, or the employer’s benefits advisor, has a FMLA question vs. an STD claim question.

Web-based applications now can assist employers and benefits advisors with filing claims, inquiring about claims, and collecting and analyzing claim data.

In 2006, UNUM Group Corp., Chattanooga, Tenn., compared customers with integrated leave management services to customers having only disability management.

The company found that customers with integrated FMLA and disability management services reported claims costs that were lower by $12,000 per 100 disability claimants than the costs reported by customers that used only disability management services.

Brian Cooke is director of product management at Custom Disability Solutions, South Portland, Maine. He can be reached at