Family Leave & Disability Plan
In January 2017, Division One of the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington ruled that employees can use a company’s short-term disability policy to receive benefits when missing work to care for sick family members. In the case of Honeycutt v. Department of Labor & Industries, two employees of Phillips 66 wanted to use paid short-term disability leave to care for sick family members. Phillips 66 told them that they could either use vacation time, paid personal days, or leave without pay. Neither of the employees wanted to use vacation time or personal days, nor did they want unpaid leave.
Phillips 66 does not provide sick leave to its employees, but it does provide a short-term disability plan that allows paid time off for illness. Alternatively, employees may use paid vacation time or paid personal days when they are sick. However, Phillips’policy was that the short-term disability plan allowed paid time off only for an employee’s own illness; it did not permit employees to use the short-term disability plan to receive pay while caring for ill family members. Phillips’ policy was that an employee needing time off to care for an ill family member must use his or her vacation days, personal days, or simply go without pay.
Washington’s Family Care Act (FCA) does not require an employer to provide paid sick leave. However, if an employer does provide paid sick leave, the FCA requires that it provide paid leave for employees who miss work to care for sick family members. If the employer offers employees several types of leave, the FCA mandates that the employee can choose which type of leave he or she wishes to use when missing work to care for a sick family member. In this case, the two employees of Phillips 66 argued that under the FCA, they should be able to use the short-term disability plan to be paid while on leave. They filed a complaint with the Department of Labor & Industries, which ruled that the FCA did not require that employees be allowed to use the short-term disability plan, because they had alternative sources of paid leave (i.e., vacation time and personal days).
The Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the FCA requires employers to let employees access short-term disability benefits when caring for sick family members, regardless of whether there are other types of leave available. The Court looked both at the language of the FCA, as well as its legislative history, to determine that our legislature intended for employees to be able to access short-term disability plans when their employers do not offer sick leave.