Most employers are familiar with the state and federal family and medical leave laws requiring employers of a certain size to grant leaves of absence to employees under various conditions, most notably when they or a close family member are seriously ill, or upon the birth or adoption of a child.

However, neither of these family and medical leave laws apply to employers with less than 50 employees. So that means smaller employers don’t have to grant extended leaves of absence, right? Wrong.

There are many misconceptions about a smaller employer’s obligation to grant leaves of absence.

Some employers allow employees to take unnecessarily long leaves, while others are not granting the leaves required by law. Most typically, the issue arises when an employee has a physical (such as a pregnancy or need for surgery) or mental (such as depression) condition that affects his or her ability to report to work.

When addressing these circumstances, the smaller employer must be aware of several different laws.

Employers, for example, often wonder about leaves following an employees’ workers’ compensation injury.

Many employers erroneously believe that employees out on workers’ compensation are entitled to greater leave benefits than other employees. Some needlessly carry the workers’ compensation claimant on their payroll indefinitely.

Connecticut prohibits employers from discriminating against workers’ compensation claimants. Thus, a company need only grant a workers’ compensation recipient the same leave that would be granted to someone out for other, non-work related conditions.

When responding to an employee’s need for a medical leave, employers should also be aware of the state and federal laws that require employers to reasonably accommodate individuals with a disability.

If an employee’s medical condition rises to the level of a disability, as defined by either state or federal discrimination laws, the employer must consider whether granting the leave would be a reasonable accommodation to the employee.

Unfortunately, there is little guidance for employers on this issue and each case must be analyzed under its own specific circumstances taking into account such things as the length of the leave, the type of work performed by the employee, and the size and financial resources of the employer.

Finally, smaller employers need to understand Connecticut’s pregnancy discrimination law.

In addition to prohibiting discrimination against pregnant employees, employers of three or more employees must grant a woman who is disabled as the result of pregnancy, a "reasonable" leave of absence. The law does not define "reasonable," but it is often interpreted to mean between six and eight weeks.

Individual circumstances, however, must be taken into account when deciding how much leave is "reasonable." It is important to remember that this leave is granted for the period of time the woman is physically disabled as the result of the pregnancy; it is not intended as time for child rearing, or bonding with a newborn and, therefore, is unavailable to men.

Before making a final determination regarding a leave request, employers should review all the relevant laws as well as their own internal policies.

If, as an employer, you are uncertain how to handle a particular situation, you should consult outside help since the interplay of these laws is sometimes confusing and the penalty for violating them can be high.