Have ‘Stranger’ Leaves Been Approved? FMLA Lessons from Netflix

While binge-watching everyone’s nostalgic guilty pleasure, Netflix’s Stranger Things, I could not help but empathize with single mother Joyce Byers (played by actress Winona Ryder). Her prepubescent son, Will (Noah Schnapp), was abducted by a monster (the Demogorgon) and sent to a parallel universe (the Upside Down) populated by dog-like monsters. During Will’s disappearance, apparent death, and eventual resurrection, mom somehow remained employed as a clerk at Melvald’s General Store in their fictional rural hometown of Hawkins, Indiana. As a fun way to learn more about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), let’s examine whether Joyce should have been allowed to take leave during this extraordinary series of events.

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Mom’s Mind-Blowing Challenges

Stranger Things does a good job of capturing the emotional roller-coaster Joyce experiences during many sleepless days and nights while searching for her son. Through it all—from the anguish when Will’s supposedly dead body is found in a quarry, to the relief when he is eventually found to be physically unharmed and returns home—Joyce manages to keep her job. She remains employed. Never mind that Will is then linked to yet another monster (the Mind Flayer).

Stranger Things viewers will not forget the heart-wrenching scenes in Season 1 when Joyce sat alone in her dark house, Christmas lights strewn about, clutching a phone and waiting for a blink, white noise, or any other semblance of Will’s existence. Few believed her, but she was certain that he was trying to communicate with her—paranormally.

FMLA Inside Out and Upside Down

For discussion purposes, let’s assume that, leading up to Will’s disappearance, Joyce had worked at least 1,250 hours for at least 12 months. Also, let’s suppose Melvald’s had at least 50 employees, which would make her eligible for FMLA leave. If so, here’s how the law might address Joyce’s unusual life’s events:

Will’s Disappearance. No, his disappearance would not be covered by FMLA since it doesn’t fit any of the circumstances for which the leave may be taken. Joyce could arguable qualify for FMLA leave, however, if she experienced some sort of physical or mental illness (e.g., depression, schizophrenia, or posttraumatic stress disorder) because of her son’s disappearance that rendered her unable to perform her essential job functions. Further, if Jonathan (her high school-age son, played by Charlie Heaton) suffered a physical or mental illness as a result of his brother’s disappearance, Joyce would likely qualify for FMLA leave.

Will’s (Supposed) Death. This event would not have been covered by FMLA because it doesn’t fit any of the circumstances for which leave may be taken. Simply put, the Act offers no bereavement benefits. Again, however, if Joyce or Jonathan experienced physical or mental illness as a result of the event, mom could arguably qualify for FMLA leave.

Will’s Paranormal Abduction. Lastly, once Will was found alive, he seemed to be physically OK. At that point, however, his mental abduction began. During Season 2, his doctor and paranormal specialist Sam Owen (played by actor Paul Reiser) diagnosed him with a type of mental possession called “hive mind” in which his consciousness and that of the Mind Flayer were linked. During the possession, Will appeared to be trapped in a coma and controlled by the monster. Owens, Will’s family and friends, and the viewers learned that “hive mind” was the type of mental disability that rendered the youth incapable of self-care–a circumstance under which Joyce could use FMLA leave.

Of course, would Joyce’s bosses believe her? That’s where Owens comes in, since he arguably fits FMLA’s broad definition of “health care provider.” There’s a good chance that Joyce could have qualified for FMLA leave if the doctor had opined that Will suffered from a period of incapacity (or required treatment for the condition) caused by a chronic serious health condition—his “hive mind.”

Stranger Things Have Happened

You may never encounter an employee whose child has been abducted into a parallel universe and diagnosed with hive mind.  Stranger things have happened, however, and we promise that if you arm yourself with a comprehensive understanding of FMLA leave, you won’t be caught “upside-down.”

Destiny Washington focuses her practice at FordHarrison’s Atlanta office on the representation of employers in labor and employment law matters. Her experience representing an international union and state and local government entities, including law enforcement agencies and school districts, gives her a unique perspective in her advice and representation. A former military print journalist, she has proudly served her country and is a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Louisiana Army National Guard. Find her on LinkedIn here.

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