Can an Employer Ask for Proof of a Family Emergency?

Employers can ask for proof of a family emergency, but they can’t ask for medical documentation or other sensitive information.

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Can an Employer Ask for Proof of a Family Emergency?

Here's what you need to know:

  • An employer can ask for proof of a family emergency before providing leave
  • In most cases, you can also choose to deny them leave, but while that’s technically possible, whether you should or not is another story
  • What the law considers proof is a bit more complicated — employers can’t ask for a doctor’s note, diagnosis, or treatment
  • You can ask which family member is affected and how they are related to the employee
  • And while it’s possible to terminate an employee for taking an unauthorized leave, terminating a worker to whom you have granted leave can land you in hot water
  • The fact is that family emergencies are complicated and sensitive situations, and the last thing you want to do is foster distrust between the organization and your talent

While 63% of job candidates would reject an offer if it didn’t include PTO, 55% of employees in 2022 didn’t use all their days off.

The fact is that taking a vacation and sick leave is already difficult for most employees, but taking time off to care for a family member can be even more challenging.

Workers don’t want to let their team members down by leaving the office. But 61% of employees fail to take their time off because they fear being replaced.

That said, when a worker does muster up the courage to submit a request leave during an emergency, employers can sometimes be confused. Common questions are:

  • What counts as a family emergency?
  • Is it appropriate to ask for proof?
  • Am I legally obligated to approve the request, even if it would leave us in a bind?
  • How are emergency leave categories in terms of time off?

In this article, we’ll review how employers can handle requests for family emergency leave.

Can an employer ask for proof of a family emergency?

In short, yes, an employer can ask for proof of a family emergency before providing leave. In most cases, you can also choose to deny them leave, but while that’s technically possible, whether you should or not is another story.

What the law considers proof is a bit more complicated. Employers can’t ask for a doctor’s note, diagnosis, or treatment. You can ask which family member is affected and how they are related to the employee.

The fact is that family emergencies are complicated and sensitive situations, and the last thing you want to do is foster distrust between the organization and your talent.

And while it’s possible to terminate an employee for taking an unauthorized leave, terminating a worker to whom you have granted leave can land you in hot water.

The fact is that family emergencies are complicated and sensitive situations, and the last thing you want to do is foster distrust between the organization and your talent.

Being clear about what constitutes a family emergency and potential options for leave can help you navigate challenging situations.

What are examples of what counts as a family emergency?

Let’s be real: Individuals asking for leave for a family emergency aren’t just asking to go to a party with their cousins. An emergency is often just that — an unexpected, significant life event.

And even if your employee comes to the office, they probably won’t be able to concentrate until the emergency is resolved.

So, what counts as a family emergency? Some examples are:

  • Birth of a child, which can be planned or unplanned in case of a premature or late birth
  • Finalized adoption
  • Car accident of a family member
  • Sudden illness or death of a family member
  • Family member suffering from a natural disaster

In most cases, family emergencies refer to a significant event that affects an immediate family member. An immediate family member could be a parent, child, sibling, in-law, spouse, or guardian.

That doesn’t mean that an employee won’t consider extended family members in emergency situations. For example, they may be extremely close to an aunt who suddenly passes away.

Consider emergency leave when structuring your time-off policies

It’s important to consider emergency leave when crafting your time-off policies. You’ll want to include a section for the family emergency procedures in your employee handbook and training materials.

And if you manage employee benefits by using an online benefits administration system that includes PTO scheduling, you may want to consider having instructions for scheduling a family emergency.

For example, family emergencies may be covered under PTO, sick leave, or unpaid leave options. Employees covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may be eligible for up to 12 weeks off for family-related illnesses and significant medical events.

However, not every company is required to abide by the FMLA. If you have more than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius, then you are likely required to offer this benefit.

Federal laws aside, HR managers and small business owners should still review local and state laws to ensure that they are completely compliant. For example, Oregon has a paid family leave law and New York offers family leave insurance.

By nature, emergencies can rarely be predicted and you want to have a process that makes requesting and evaluating emergency leave simple for everyone.

You can make it easier to document by creating a simple Leave Notice template. Creating a digital version that an employee just has to modify and sign would make it even easier to receive and evaluate requests quickly, for both parties.

Sample family leave notice template

[Date]

[Employee Name]

[Employee contact phone number and email, accessible during an emergency]

Dear [Supervisor Name]:

I am requesting leave from [Date] to [Date] due to a family emergency, [describe event]. Attached is evidence of the emergency as per company policy.

I will [be working from home / be available for questions / not be available] during this time. I plan to use my [sick leave / PTO leave / FMLA / unpaid leave] for this request.

During my leave, my coworkers will be able to complete my duties. I may be accessible for questions, but I documented my procedures as per normal workflow.

When I return to work on [Date], I will review the progress on current projects and submit another request if more time is needed. You can reach me at the number and email given above.

Thank you for your patience and understanding during this difficult time.

Sincerely,

[Name and Job Title]

What are steps for employers and HR after approving leave?

Once you receive a request, it’s often the best practice to approve an emergency leave. Employees do have a life outside the office. Preventing them from attending to family crises can create distrust across the workplace.

That said, the organization still has tasks that need to be completed. While your employee may try to delegate tasks before leaving, in many cases, there will still be loose ends.

It’s best to review the sudden leave with the team, without divulging personal details, and set up a short-term workflow.

To streamline work while your employee is on leave, follow these steps:

  1. Remind the team of their new responsibilities.
  2. Ensure that all workers have appropriate access to documents.
  3. Ask employees to keep a running list of questions for the worker on leave, which you can send altogether instead of calling the worker for each instance.
  4. If the employee is working part-time from home, ensure they have access to software and resources for essential tasks.

You can also go the extra mile and help your employee with a “support box” from the office. This could include gift cards, toiletries, fruits and vegetables, office supplies, and anything else that might be useful for the employee while they are away.

While you don’t need to know everything about the emergency, putting together a helpful package can cement trust and loyalty, not just with this 1 worker, but with the whole office.

The importance of investing in employee well-being

Choosing to approve family leave may temporarily overload the team, but in the long run, you can foster a more inclusive, more collaborative workforce. Feel free to ask for proof, but it should be for legal documentation, not so much for judging the employee.

Employee well-being doesn’t stop at allowing family leave. Employers can boost their staff’s productivity and retention by using a person-centric approach to HR.

To learn more about how focusing on employee well-being can improve your business operations, check out our guide to People Ops and Employee Well-being.

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