Parents of children in special education are often faced with the difficult challenge of balancing work obligations with advocacy for their child. In order to effectively advocate, you must attend Individualized Educational Program (IEP) meetings, but you may receive pushback from your employer for missing work to attend these meetings. The employer might threaten discipline, or even termination, for time missed. In certain circumstances, you may have legal authority to request time to attend these meetings.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued an opinion letter indicating that a parent or guardian may use the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to attend (IEP) meetings with teachers, administrators, and other providers involved in planning services for their child with special needs. The FMLA is a federal law designed to help employees balance work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. What do you need to know?
- FMLA applies to certain employers, including public agencies, public and private elementary and secondary schools, and employers with 50 or more employees;
- Those qualifying employers must provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in each year for reasons which can include taking care of an immediate family member (e.g. a child) with a “serious health condition”. This leave may be taken intermittently.
- Employees are eligible for leave if they have worked for their employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles.
- A “serious health condition” is defined as an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient care or continuing treatment by a healthcare provider.
The recent DOL opinion letter was in response to a parent’s complaint that her employer allowed her to use FMLA leave to attend medical appointments but not meetings at school. The letter states that attendance at such a meeting is “care” under the FMLA, which includes making arrangements both for change in care and to find suitable childcare, and a doctor need not be present at the meeting to qualify for FMLA leave.
This opinion is good news for qualifying parents, as it affords them the opportunity to participate in team meetings without fear of negative repercussions in the workplace. For those parents living in Massachusetts, additional authority exists on which they can rely when taking leave to attend an IEP meeting. In 1998, the Small Necessities Leave Act (SNLA) expanded the rights available to Massachusetts employees under the FMLA. Under the SNLA:
- An employee eligible under the FMLA may take up to 24 hours of unpaid leave for “small necessities” purposes during any twelve-month period in addition to the leave available under the FMLA.
- “Small necessities” include participation in school activities directly related to the “educational advancement” of his or her son or daughter, such as parent-teacher conferences or interviewing for a new school.
- Leave may be taken intermittently. For example, a parent may take a two hour leave for a meeting, and 22 hours would remain available in the 12 month period for future appointments or meetings.
- If the necessity for leave is foreseeable, the parent must provide the employer with seven days’ notice before the date of the leave, but if it is not foreseeable (i.e. an emergency call to the principal’s office), they must notify the employer “as soon as practicable.” The employer may also require that the parent provide written certification from a doctor, school, or other appropriate facility to support the leave request.
So, what is the takeaway? If you are a parent of a child in special education in Massachusetts, you may be legally entitled to request leave to attend IEP meetings or other school activities related to your child.