Family and Medical Leave Act

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 What Is Employment Law?

Employment law describes a considerably broad range of legal issues associated with employees, employers, and safety conditions in the workplace. An example of this would be how some employment laws may apply to a case that involves employment discrimination, while other laws can be used to provide guidance when drafting company policies and/or employee handbooks.

The intention of employment law is to protect all of those who are part of the workforce. This may include:

  • Establishing protection for employees in disputes against a colleague, an employer, or a company;
  • Ensuring that businesses do not discriminate against prospective job candidates and/or current employees in the interviewing, hiring, promoting, or terminating process;
  • Providing some rights to people who are self-employed or who are considered to be independent contractors; and
  • Ensuring that volunteers and interns do not suffer from sexual harassment, discrimination, and/or retaliation in the workplace.

It should be noted that employment laws can vary widely by jurisdiction. As such, the rights that one state may protect, may not be available as a protection under the laws of another state. Additionally, some issues may be governed by both state and federal employment laws, such as pregnancy leave.

What Is The Family And Medical Leave Act, Or FMLA?

The Family and Medical Leave Act, or “FMLA,” is a federal labor law that was passed in 1993. It requires covered employers to provide their eligible employees with job protected and unpaid leave for qualified medical and family circumstances. The Act provides rights and protections associated with medical leave for employees, and may continue unpaid leave for up to twelve weeks.

Additionally, the Act requires that covered employers maintain the health benefits for all eligible workers, so it is as if they were still actively working. During this time, the employee’s position is protected, meaning that they may not be terminated.

As a federal law, the Act preempts state laws, even when those laws conflict with each other. As such, employees in states that offer little or no family and medical leave could still be protected under the FMLA. Some states may provide more coverage than what the FMLA provides, but most states do not provide more leave than what is required by federal law.

Additionally, not all employers are required to provide the benefits that are required by the FMLA. Federal law has determined that employers are required to provide all eligible employees with leave if the employer meets at least one of the following elements:

  • The employer is a state, local, or federal governmental agency;
  • The employer is a private business that conducts interstate commerce, with fifty or more employees that work twenty or more weeks in one year; or
  • The employer engages in commerce, or in an industry that affects commerce. Nearly every business meets the requirement for being commerce or affecting commerce.

To reiterate, employers are not permitted to terminate an employee who takes family or medical leave for any reason as outlined in the FMLA. Additionally, employees working for employers covered by the FMLA have the right under federal law to take leave if they qualify. Employers cannot reprimand the employee for taking this leave, and the employer may not discriminate when granting FMLA leave. What this means is that they cannot provide leave to one employee but not the other when both are similarly eligible, especially when this decision is based on a protected class.

What Employees Are Eligible Under The Family And Medical Leave Act?

In order to be eligible for coverage under the FMLA, an employee must meet all three of the following criteria:

  1. The employee must have worked for their employer for the last twelve months;
  2. The employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours over the last twelve months; and
  3. The employee must be employed by an employer who is covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

In addition, the employee must experience a qualifying life event that would trigger a need for the FMLA. Some examples of qualifying life events include, but may not be limited to:

  • The birth and care of a newborn;
  • The placement of an adopted or fostered child, when placed within one year since applying for leave;
  • The employee needing to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition;
  • The employee themself has a serious condition which makes them unable to perform essential functions of their job, including pregnancy or prenatal care; and/or
  • The employee’s spouse, child, or parent is an active military member who is called to active duty.

Employees may take up to 26 weeks of leave in twelve months, if they take the leave in order to care for a spouse, child, parent, or next of kin that is a service member who has experienced a serious injury or illness. However, employees are generally limited to up to 26 weeks of combined leave over a twelve month period.

Eligible employees are entitled to take time off in order to care for themselves, or for family members. Other benefits include:

  • Twelve weeks of unpaid leave;
  • Medical and/or health benefits during their leave; and
  • The restoration of their original position once they return to work, when their leave has ended.

Generally, employees cannot lose their job if they take Family and Medical Leave Act leave; further, employers cannot reprimand employees for taking FMLA leave. Employers may not interfere with the FMLA protected rights of the employee, and they cannot use FMLA leave as an adverse factor in any future employment evaluations, such as promotions or raises.

Could Violating The FMLA Justify A Lawsuit?

Employers must generally allow their eligible employees to return to their former position once taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. However, there are some exceptions to this rule which should be understood before discussing any employer violations.

First, employees who are on leave do not necessarily have any more rights or privileges than any of their fellow employees. Meaning, if an employer determines that a round of layoffs is necessary, an employee who is on FMLA leave is just as susceptible to being laid off as any other employee, without their employer committing any violation of the FMLA.

Second, any employee who is earning one of the top ten percent salaries at the company does not have any inherent right to be reinstated to their position at the same rate of pay and benefits once returning from FMLA leave. This is especially true if their return from leave would cause “substantial and grievous economic burden” to the company.

Some of the common problems that cause employers to trigger a FMLA violation include:

  • Lack of Notice: By law, employers who are required to adhere to the FMLA are also required to provide their employees with notice of the FMLA. Employers are legally allowed to ask their employees for certain documents related to their claim in order to verify information; however, requiring an employee to provide an excessive amount of documentation, or failing to provide adequate notice of FMLA benefits, could be considered a violation;
  • Mismanagement of Leave Time: Eligible employees are entitled to up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave per year for qualifying conditions. During this leave, an employer may communicate with the employee, but not to the extent that it interferes with the employee’s time off; and
  • Reinstatement Issues: To reiterate, all employees who take FMLA leave are entitled to be reinstated to their position once they return from leave. While this provision is subject to certain exceptions as previously discussed, failure to reinstate an employee is considered to be a violation.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Help With The Family And Medical Leave Act?

An employment law attorney can help employers determine whether the Family and Medical Leave Act, or other state family leave laws, apply to their business. An attorney can also help ensure that the employee’s rights are protected, such as by helping an employee show their employer when family or medical leave is required.

If an employee is denied the leave for which they are eligible, their attorney can then help them file a complaint, as well as represent them in court as needed.

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