The Department of Labor (DOL) recently issued an opinion letter confirming that parents may take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to attend individualized education program (IEP) meetings for children receiving special education. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to develop IEPs for children receiving special education services. The school must meet regularly with IEP team members to assess and revise the plan as necessary.
The issue in the DOL opinion letter began when a mother of children with qualifying serious health conditions under the FMLA provided her employer with certification supporting the need to take intermittent leave to care for her children. The employer granted FMLA leave to take the children to medical appointments but denied leave to attend IEP meetings.
The children received pediatrician-prescribed occupational, speech and physical therapy provided by the school district. Four times a year, the school holds IEP meetings to review their educational and medical needs, well-being and progress. In addition to teachers and school administrators, a speech pathologist, school psychologist, occupational therapist and physical therapist also attended the IEP meetings. All participants provided updates on the children’s progress and areas of concern, reviewed recommendations made by the children’s doctors, reviewed any new test results and potentially made recommendations for additional therapy.
In the opinion letter, the DOL concluded that attendance at IEP meetings qualifies as caring for a family member with a serious health condition under the FMLA. The opinion noted that “to care for” a family member under the FMLA includes taking leave to arrange for changes in care or to help make medical decisions. Attendance at IEP meetings is essential to the parent’s ability to provide appropriate physical and/or psychological care to children, including making medical decisions concerning the children’s medically prescribed speech, physical and occupational therapy, to discuss the children’s wellbeing and progress, and to ensure the school environment is suitable to their medical, social and academic needs.
The DOL’s opinion letter expands the potential scope of intermittent FMLA leave. Though the facts here involve IEP meetings under a specific federal law, the letter suggests FMLA leave should be given for any meetings addressing the medical care, progress and well-being of children receiving special education. As a result, employers may see an increase in the number of FMLA requests to attend these types of meetings. Employees must still adhere to the FMLA certification and notice requirements when requesting leave for these meetings.
While other school meetings unrelated to medical care/special education may not fall under the FMLA, California employers should be cautious about denying such requests because California law specifically provides leave for employees to participate in a child’s school “activities,” up to 40 hours per year, which could potentially include meetings, field trips, awards ceremonies, etc. The state law may cover IEP meetings as well, though it is unclear at this point because no decisions or regulations currently clarify the meaning of school “activities” under the state law.
Employers should consult with counsel before denying an employee’s request to take leave to attend IEP meetings or other meetings related to their children in order to assess any risk under the applicable federal and state laws.