Unpaid Leave Disputes

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 What Is Employment Law?

Employment law refers to a 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 employment discrimination cases. In contrast, other employment laws can provide guidance when creating company policies or employee handbooks.

Employment law intends to protect all who are a part of the workforce. This includes, but may not be limited to:

  • Establishing protection for employees involved in disputes against a colleague, an employer, or a company;
  • Ensuring that businesses do not discriminate against prospective job candidates or current employees in the interviewing, hiring, promoting, or terminating process;
  • Providing specific 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, or retaliation in the workplace.

It is important to note that employment laws can vary considerably by jurisdiction. As such, the rights that one state may protect may not be available as protection under the laws of another state. Additionally, some employment law issues may be governed by both state and federal employment laws, such as pregnancy leave.

What Are My Legal Rights As An Employee?

Some examples of the legal rights that employees have include:

  • The right to privacy;
  • The right to be free from discrimination; and
  • The right to fair compensation.

If a right is included under employment law, it will most likely apply and can be used to protect an employee.

Many of the rights provided by employment laws address the well-being and safety of employment conditions in the workplace. An example of this would be how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) is responsible for enforcing laws and policies that protect employees from dangerous conditions and unsafe work environments.

An example of this would be an employer who refuses to repair broken equipment or a building, which then develops into an issue that exposes their employees to toxic chemicals. An employee whose health has been negatively affected by the chemicals can submit a complaint to OSHA, who will then investigate the complaint and determine whether to issue sanctions against the employer.

What Is Unpaid Leave?

Unpaid leave refers to an unpaid leave of absence or a period in which an employee must temporarily leave work. The employee intends to return to their position once the need for leave has been met. These reasons generally include, but may not be limited to:

  • Family leave;
  • Medical leave;
  • Maternity leave; and
  • Bereavement leave.

The exact amount of allowable leave largely depends on each employer, as well as each state’s laws.

Generally speaking, the Family and Medical Leave Act governs leave of absence, more commonly referred to as the “FMLA.” The FMLA stipulates that qualified employers allow up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to qualified employees. Additionally, the employee on leave is to return to their position and maintain health insurance benefits during their leave as if they were actively working. The employee may not be terminated during an approved leave of absence except under specific circumstances.

As the Act is a federal law, it preempts state laws when they conflict. This means that employees who work in states that offer little to no family or medical leave could still have some degree of protection under the FMLA. Some states have laws that provide more leave than federal law, but most states do not provide more leave than what is required by federal law.

What Are Some Common Unpaid Leave Disputes?

Disputes associated with an employee taking medical or family leave, whether paid or unpaid, generally arise when an employer disagrees with the employee’s absence. This is usually because the employer does not believe that the employee qualifies for the protections that the FMLA provides.

Some specific examples of disputes and legal issues involving medical or family leave include:

  • Disputes associated with unpaid leave vs. the use of vacation time;
  • Disputes over the length, purpose, or terms of an unpaid leave of absence;
  • The employer terminates the employee while they are away on a valid leave of absence;
  • Forcing an employee to take unpaid leave in such a way that it violates company policies, state laws, or both;
  • Failing to pay an employee during paid leave if they are legally entitled to receive paid leave; and
  • Discrimination in terms of the availability of unpaid leave, such as making leave unavailable to an otherwise qualified employee due to their belonging to a protected class.

Two other examples include fraudulent filing and accounting violations. Fraudulent filing may occur when an employee is faking a medical condition in order to fraudulently obtain medical leave, whether that leave is paid or unpaid. Accounting violations generally include tax or record-keeping fraud.

Unpaid leave disputes also frequently arise in connection with employment contracts. Simply put, an employment contract is an agreement between an employer and employee that clarifies the terms of employment. Employment contracts commonly address such issues as:

  • Job title and duties;
  • Salary and benefits; and
  • Vacation and sick leave.

Some employers may use an employment contract to specify the amount of unpaid leave available to an employee. Failure on the part of either party to adhere to the terms of the employment contract could result in a legal claim.

What Are Some Legal Remedies For Unpaid Leave Disputes?

If you have a dispute associated with unpaid medical or family leave, there are specific steps that you will likely need to follow before you may take legal action against your employer. Generally speaking, this includes:

  • First, notify your supervisor or your company’s human resources department to exhaust all administrative remedies;
  • Initiating an agency investigation by reporting the infraction to either the Equal Employment Opportunity
  • Commission (“EEOC”) or the Wage and Hour Division; and
  • Filing a private civil lawsuit if an agency investigation does not provide sufficient solutions.

Pending the results of an agency investigation, your employer may be required to rewrite their existing medical leave policies to conform to federal and state leave laws. Doing so would also assist them in avoiding future infractions. As a violated employee, you may be entitled to a damages award if you have suffered lost wages or benefits due to your employer’s violation. Additionally, you may receive a damages award if you were wrongfully terminated from your position while on medical or family leave.

It is important to reiterate that legal remedies may vary from state to state, depending on each state’s family and medical leave laws. The facts of each specific case also play a considerably large role when determining legal remedies for disputes involving unpaid leave of absence.

Do I Need A Lawyer For Unpaid Leave Disputes?

If you are involved in an unpaid leave dispute, a workplace lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific unpaid leave laws.

Additionally, if you have an employment contract, your attorney can review that contract to determine whether you have a case against your employer for wrongful denial of unpaid family or medical leave. Your workplace attorney will also be able to represent you in court as necessary.


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