Medical leave refers to an employee taking a leave of absence from work due to a medical illness or condition, pregnancy, or other similar issues. Medical leave is governed by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, or “FMLA.” As a federal law, FMLA provides all eligible employees with up to twelve weeks of unpaid medical leave.
Additionally, the Act states that employers who are required to adhere to the Act preserve the health benefits and job position of employees on leave, just as if they were still actively working. Therefore, employees on medical leave are covered by the Act and are able to eventually return to their position.
As a federal law, the Family and Medical Leave Act preempts state laws. This means that even if the federal and state law conflicts, employees who work in states that offer little to no family and medical leave may be covered by the FMLA.
Some states do have their own paid leave laws that provide more coverage, depending on the health or medical circumstances, but most states do not provide any more leave than is required by federal law and simply rely on FMLA provisions.
It is important to note that not all employers are actually required to provide the benefits required by the FMLA. Eligible employers must meet one of the following criteria:
- The employer is a state, local, or federal governmental agency;
- The employer is a private business that does interstate commerce, and has 50 or more employees that work 20 or more weeks in a single year; and/or
- The employer engages in commerce, or is part of an industry that affects commerce.
Nearly every business meets the criteria of engaging in commerce, or being part of an industry that affects commerce. But, for example, businesses that use seasonal workers, like Christmas tree lots or farms may not meet the requirement of 50 or more employees that work 20 or more weeks/year.
What are Some of the Most Common Disputes Related to Medical Leave?
Disputes over an employee taking medical leave most often occur when an employer disagrees with the employee’s absence. This is sometimes due to the fact that the employer does not believe the employee is actually eligible for protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act. In order to be eligible for the FMLA, the employee must meet all three of the following criteria:
- The employee must have worked for the employer for the last twelve months;
- Over the last twelve months, the employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours; and
- The employer must be covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Qualifying life events that could trigger FMLA include:
- The birth and care of a newborn child;
- The placement of an adopted or fostered child, that was placed within one year since applying for leave;
- Caring for an immediate family member with a serious health condition;
- The employee has a serious health condition that renders them unable to perform functions of their job;
- Pregnancy or prenatal care; and/or
- The employee’s spouse, child, or parent is an active military member or has been called into active duty.
Other than disputes over whether the employer or employee are eligible for leave, common disputes regarding medical leave include:
- Wrongful termination, as in the employee was wrongfully terminated during their leave;
- Issues with back pay or withheld wages, if the employee was actually eligible for said wages;
- Fraudulent filing, such as faking a medical condition in order to fraudulently obtain medical leave; and
- Accounting violations, such as tax or record keeping fraud.
Some disputes regarding medical leave overlap with related issues, such as maternity leave or bereavement leave.
Are There Any Legal Remedies for Medical Leave Disputes?
Employers who violate the Family and Medical Leave Act may do so unintentionally. However, their actions could still leave them vulnerable to legal action, such as a civil lawsuit. Some of the most common FMLA violations employers may commit include:
- Failing to notify employees of their FMLA status and eligibility;
- Requiring an excessive amount of documentation related to an employee’s FMLA claim;
- Mismanaging the employee’s leave, such as excessively contacting the employee about work related matters during their leave;
- Not allowing the employee to take the full twelve weeks allowed by the FMLA; and
- Failing to reinstate the employee to their former position upon their return from leave.
Claims for FMLA violations could require a substantial amount of investigation into the practices and work policies of the employer. Pending the results of the investigation, the employer may be required to rework their existing medical leave policies, in order to conform to federal and state leave laws. Violated employees may be entitled to a damages award if they have suffered lost wages or benefits, or if they have been wrongfully terminated from their position while on leave.
Do I Need an Attorney for Medical Leave Disputes?
If you have been denied wrongful FMLA leave, or your FMLA rights have been otherwise violated by your employer, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable employment law attorney.
An experienced employment law attorney can help determine whether you and/or your employer were actually eligible for FMLA leave, and if a violation occurred. An attorney can also provide you guidance as to what your best course of legal action is, given the specific facts of your case. Finally, an attorney can initiate a lawsuit on your behalf, and represent you in court as needed.