Always Interact Carefully with Workers on FMLA Leave

For over 20 years, the Family Medical Leave Act has helped millions of qualified employees take time off from their jobs to address serious family or personal medical issues. While it’s important to provide critical job security at such times, employers still retain the right to make important business decisions – even when FMLA rights are being lawfully exercised.

Some of the most challenging administrative issues that come up with the FMLA involve disabled employees who are covered by ADA provisions — and those who have filed worker’s compensation claims. Yet any employee’s situation can prove problematic – especially when the person has used all the FMLA time allowed – and is now requesting even more time off due to continuing medical problems.

What follows is a brief overview of an employer’s responsibility to rehire employees on FMLA leave and events that might justify firing or laying off an employee on this type of leave. The article concludes with a look at how you should respond when an employee requests additional time off after using the full 12 weeks allowed under the FMLA in a calendar year.

Must you always allow employees on FMLA leave to return to their previous positions?

The FMLA requires employers to allow workers to return to their former positions (or jobs similar in duties and pay) upon exhausting all available leave time. If a business or office covered by the FMLA fails to do this, the employee asking to return can sue for sizeable damages. However, this employee right isn’t absolute — for reasons referenced below.

What if your office had already planned to lay off everyone in the absent employee’s unit?

Employees seeking to return from FMLA leave do not have any rights that are greater than what they would have had if they had not taken leave time. In other words, if your company had already been planning to lay off everyone in the same unit as the employee who is now on leave and asking to come back – that person doesn’t have an absolute right to return.

However, you should still move forward cautiously with laying off this individual, especially if your office had not already fully documented the impending layoff. It’s always best to first consult with your Houston employment law attorney before terminating any employee away on FMLA leave — or who has been absent due to any other medically-related issue.

What if you became aware of misconduct when an employee is away on FMLA leave?

If you have learned since the absent employee’s leave started that s/he committed some type of prior fraud or malfeasance against your company, you can terminate the employee for cause. Of course, you must have very clear proof of the fraud (or gross misconduct) before terminating the employee. In many instances, you’ll probably need to meet with the employee before letting them go so they can respond to the evidence you’ve uncovered.

It’s also possible that an employee might commit some type of fraud against your company while on FMLA leave. For example, the employee might fraudulently use company-issued credit cards for personal gain without permission — or share proprietary business information with a competitor. It’s always wise to ask your attorney to evaluate the grounds for termination before terminating any employee.

What should you do when an employee asks for more than 12 weeks of FMLA leave?

While the Family Medical Leave Act does not guarantee any qualified worker more than 12 weeks of time off during any 12-month period, you should never try to immediately fire someone who claims to be too ill to return. For example, when a disabled employee has taken the full amount of time off to address medical problems under the FMLA, you may have an obligation to provide that person with additional time off – if doing so might lawfully be considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. However, no employee is entitled to unlimited leave.

Likewise, an employee who has already filed a worker’s compensation claim may still be too injured to return. Always consult with your lawyer before trying to fire these employees – since state worker’s compensation laws and ADA provisions may dictate your next steps. Should any employee simply take additional leave beyond 12 weeks without discussing their needs with you, such behavior could subject them to termination. Employers are always entitled to ask how long a leave is being requested.

While the potential problems tied to administering the FMLA are almost limitless, the discussion provided above should provide you with some useful guidance.

If you need advice on properly administering the FMLA or interacting with employees who have requested any type of leave, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’ve been providing this type of legal advice for many years and can help you respond fairly to all employee management issues.

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