U.S. DOL Expands Who Can Take FMLA Leave to Care for a Child

The U.S. Department of Labor is busy writing new "interpretations" of the law, rather than promulgating regulations through the normal process. In their third effort, the DOL has decided to explain who is eligible to take Family and Medical Leave under the FMLA to care for a "son" or "daughter."

It is true that the FMLA and its regulations permit leave by employees who are not biological parents when they stand "in loco parentis." But what is "in loco parentis"? Well, the statute, the courts, and the DOL's own regulations have defined the term before. The DOL cited some of the interpretations in its letter:
In loco parentis is commonly understood to refer to “a person who has put himself in the situation of a lawful parent by assuming the obligations incident to the parental relation without going through the formalities necessary to legal adoption. It embodies the two ideas of assuming the parental status and discharging the parental duties.” . . . “The key in determining whether the relationship of in loco parentis is established is found in the intention of the person allegedly in loco parentis to assume the status of a parent toward the child. The intent to assume such parental status can be inferred from the acts of the parties.” . . . Courts have enumerated factors to be considered in determining in loco parentis status; these factors include the age of the child; the degree to which the child is dependent on the person claiming to be tanding in loco parentis; the amount of support, if any, provided; and the extent to
which duties commonly associated with parenthood are exercised.

After reciting these definitions, the DOL goes on to say in its letter: "The FMLA regulations define in loco parentis as including those with day-to-day responsibilities to care for and financially support a child. 29 C.F.R. § 825.122(c)(3). . . .

OK. But then, they say:
It is the Administrator’s interpretation that the regulations do not require an
employee who intends to assume the responsibilities of a parent to establish that he or she provides both day-to-day care and financial support in order to be found to stand in loco parentis to a child. For example, where an employee provides day-to-day care for his or her unmarried partner’s child (with whom there is no legal or biological relationship) but does not financially support the child, the employee could be considered to stand in loco parentis to the child and therefore be entitled to FMLA leave to care for the child if the child had a serious health condition. The same principles apply to leave for the birth of a child and to bond with a child within the first 12 months following birth or placement.
Huh? It may be news to parents that they can "intend to assume the responsibilities of a parent," without providing "financial support." It may also be news to the person who wrote the sentence right before the language quoted above, since the word "and" connects "day-to-day responsibilities"and "financially support."

And that last part of the above quote suggests that boyfriends can take "leave for the birth" of a girlfriend's child and for "bonding"? That sort of undercuts the entire statute and regulatory scheme. Why include "parent" in the statute at all when just about anyone can qualify as standing "in loco parentis?"

Here's another interesting quote from the DOL attempting to explain its interpretation:
Neither the statute nor the regulations restrict the number of parents a child may have under the FMLA. For example, where a child’s biological parents divorce, and each parent remarries, the child will be the “son or daughter” of both the biological parents and the stepparents and all four adults would have equal rights to take FMLA leave to care for the child.
If I read this right, any step-parent automatically can take FMLA leave even when the step-parent does not indicate any interest in acting as the parent of the other spouse's biological child from a previous relationship? What if the divorced parents meet their soul mates and choose not to remarry? Is that enough to confer "in loco parentis" status on the non-biological soul mate?

Can it be that anyone with a significant other who has a child can grab some job-protected leave, ostensibly to care for the child? Of course not. The DOL has stringent verificiation requirements to ensure that only persons really and truly standing in loco parentis can have leave:
Where an employer has questions about whether an employee’s relationship to a child is covered under FMLA, the employer may require the employee to provide
reasonable documentation or statement of the family relationship. A simple statement asserting that the requisite family relationship exists is all that is needed in situations such as in loco parentis where there is no legal or biological relationship. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.122(j); 73 Fed. Reg. 67,952 (Nov. 17, 2008).
OK, not so stringent. There is no documentation requirement other than a "simple statement": "My girlfriend has a child who has a serious health condition and I need leave to take care of her." No chance for abuse there.

If you sense I'm annoyed, it's not about whether bona fide FMLA leave is important for parents and children. The issue is that some may be tempted to seek refuge in taking FMLA leave for no reason other than to shield themselves from discipline. Yes, this has actually happened. The DOL has opened up a gaping hole permitting abuse of a well-intentioned law, but without issuing regulations and without persuading Congress to amend the statute.

Administrator Interpretation 2010-3 is here.