As part of the #SHRMBlogger team, I had the good fortune to interview Jeff Nowak, employment lawyer and FMLA expert. Jeff is a partner and co-chair of the Labor and Employment practice group at Chicago-based law firm Franczek Radelet P.C. and is widely recognized as one of the nation’s foremost FMLA and ADA experts, regularly counseling clients on compliance with FMLA and ADA regulations, conducting FMLA/ADA audits and training, and successfully litigating FMLA and ADA lawsuits. Jeff also is the author of the highly-regarded FMLA Insights blog, one of my favorites, which helps employers administer FMLA leave and manage the most difficult FMLA issues.
Q: You are known as an FMLA and leave super-expert. I first came in contact with your work years ago, and I always look to you for guidance on new cases and issues that arise. What led you to be so deeply involved with the FMLA, and why are you passionate about this area of practice?
A: FMLA and leave super-expert? Ha! I use that line on my kids and they don’t seem terribly impressed. (That said, my mom seems modestly impressed.) Seriously speaking, I’ve always been drawn to the FMLA and ADA because these laws provide a snapshot of real life. Can you find anyone who has not been affected by either of these laws? Whether it’s a family member, friend or even ourselves, every one of us has had to deal with a difficult medical issue that impacts our job. For me, it was the chance to hold my father’s hand and spend time with him in his final moments before he died of cancer. Sure, my law firm gave me all the time I needed to sit bedside with him, but it was comforting to know that there is a law that protects me in those moments. For me, that sparked the passion I have for helping employers navigate this area of the law.
I love practicing in the FMLA area, in particular, because I see how much my clients struggle with administering FMLA leave, and it’s deeply rewarding to help them with their compliance efforts. The “win” in litigation is awesome, but it doesn’t compare with being arm-in-arm in the trenches with employers, helping them navigate complex and confusing FMLA regulations, and preparing a compliance strategy that will help them follow the law while meeting their business objectives. Ultimately, my goal is to play a key role in helping my clients surpass their business goals while treating their employees fairly.
Q: The title of your session is “Six Ways Your Managers Are Causing FMLA / ADA Leave Lawsuits, and How to Train Them to Stop.” Why do you think that managers are so challenged by the situations that lead to these risks?
A: FMLA administration is regularly cited in SHRM surveys as one of the most difficult areas to navigate. It starts with vague and somewhat burdensome FMLA regulations that effectively lay traps for employers along the way. For instance, when does an employee put us notice of the need for FMLA leave? Or at what point can we clarify or obtain more information about an individual’s medical condition and inability to work when a health care provider regularly provides us vague and confusing medical information? And what do we do when an employee uses intermittent FMLA leave to turn a full-time position into a part-time position?
These are extremely difficult questions, and one misstep can create a ton of liability for the employer. The FMLA regulations offer little guidance on these very difficult questions. I find that these kinds of difficult questions paralyze even the most experienced HR professionals. When FMLA perplexes even the most experienced of us, you can imagine how it wreaks havoc on workplaces everywhere. And it does.
Q: When you’re not speaking, providing professional training for HR, and writing about these issues, what do you do in your legal practice?
A: I represent employers ranging from the small, local businesses to Fortune 100 companies on a wide range of labor and employment issues. However, the majority of my legal practice involves representing employers in the areas of FMLA or ADA. Of this work, a decent portion includes litigating FMLA and ADA cases in federal court across the country. However, my practice increasingly involves counseling employers on day-to-day FMLA and ADA compliance issues and training managers on their responsibilities under these laws. I find the compliance counseling aspect of my job to be the most rewarding, as we can address critical issues before they blow up in litigation.
Q: You add a lot of personality to your posts and sometimes even share a glimpse of your adorable family, as you did when you made your kids celebrate the 25th birthday of the FMLA, complete with cake, and shared a picture online (by the way, that qualifies you to join me in the FMLA super-geek club)! What other kinds of things do you like to do in your free time?
A: As absolutely spine-tingling as the FMLA is, I try and remind myself that there are a handful of other things just as exciting in life. For instance, I am a baseball fanatic. If I weren’t so damn scared of failing, I would have followed my dream after college of becoming a major league baseball umpire! (For nearly two decades, I umpired high school and semi-pro baseball.) Now, decades later with four young kids, I spend much of my spring and summer coaching their baseball teams. In a few months, I also will take on the position of president of our local little league, so I am going to eat, sleep and breathe even more baseball!
Q: Why should #SHRM18 attendees be sure to catch your session?
A: You mean, other than watching me juggle rings of fire while balancing a Golden Retriever puppy on each shoulder? (Ahem, you may want to avoid the front row juuuuust in case.) My co-presenter, Matt Morris (who is my FMLA “phone a friend” whenever I am in trouble), and I promise a wildly practical session on the FMLA. You will leave with a roadmap and several case studies that you can immediately use to create your own workplace FMLA training program. We will help you explain to managers their critical role in the FMLA leave process, how you can help them stop saying dumb things that land you in FMLA jail, and as I mentioned, provide several case studies that you can shamelessly steal for your own training programs. (I won’t even sue you for stealing them, I promise.) Can you imagine a more exhilarating session at #SHRM18?
Q: What else would you like to add?
A: Well, haven’t I already worn out my welcome? It’s best not to allow an attorney blather on….