Q. I am currently on medical leave from work. I was recently approved for short-term disability coverage. Up until this point, my workplace was compensating me by exhausting my vacation and sick time. I was under the assumption that once short-term disability was approved, my workplace would then stop compensating me through my accrued vacation time. Yet when I informed my workplace that I was approved for short-term disability, they said that they would still have to exhaust my vacation time until my return in addition to the short-term disability checks I am now receiving. Is this legal? I am now receiving 2 forms of income, short-term disability and my vacation time pay.
A. I hope that your health is improving – whatever the circumstance, which of course does matter to be able to answer this question. Often benefits questions are a matter of law, policy, and contractual issues, which makes them a challenge to untangle.
David Conforto, of Conforto Law Group, P.C. a Boston-based boutique firm concentrating in all aspects of employment law and dedicated to the representation of employees, confirms that the answer to this question will depend on the circumstances surrounding your medical leave.
“In general, employers have wide discretion in establishing vacation time policies. Some employers require vacation time to be used in the year that it is earned, whereas others allow such time to be banked from year-to-year. In your situation, your employer is essentially limiting the amount of time that you’ll be out of work by requiring you to use your accrued vacation during your medical leave. This can be a valid policy where it is applied consistently and where your medical leave is not pregnancy-related.”
If your leave is pregnancy related, Conforto suggests you may be protected by the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, in addition to the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (“MMLA”). Attorney Conforto goes on to explain “Under the MMLA, an employer can not require an employee to use up her accrued vacation time during her MMLA leave, even if the employer has imposed a similar requirement with respect to other types of leave. As such, you may be able to hold onto your accrued vacation time, at least for the first 8 weeks of your short-term disability leave.
In contrast, you’re not likely to find any relief under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) Section 825 of the FMLA’s regulations, which allows your employer to require you to utilize your accrued paid leave.
Understanding benefits, even before you get to the paperwork, can be very complicated. I encourage you to meet with the human resources benefits specialist for a full explanation of how you are covered, and how the policy works for both you and the employer. If they are not able to explain this clearly enough, they may be willing to put you in touch with the benefits broker who manages the policies so that you can feel confident that you are being treated fairly.