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Court: employers must be fair with FMLA leave-takers

Many Wisconsin employers are obligated by law to provide employees with 12-weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for certain family and medical reasons. While people tend to associate the Family Medical Leave Act with maternity leave, it also applies to employees who have serious health conditions that make them unable to work, and to employees who must care for a very ill spouse or child.

In order to comply with FMLA, however, employers have to do more than just allow workers to take leave. They also need to facilitate the transition in and out of leave somewhat, and this tends to mean altering workloads. When employers fail to do so, they can be held liable for FMLA interference, as was recently reported by the journal "Business Management Daily."

In a recent case, a salesman took a brief FMLA leave due to heart complications. Around the time that he began his leave, his employer instituted a new system to evaluate employees' sales efforts. When the man returned to work, he learned that under this new evaluation system he was not meeting his sales goals.

Because he was not meeting performance goals, his supervisor demanded to go on a ride-along for a sales call in order to assess his job performance. The assessment did not go well, since the man had been out ill and had not had time to get organized and set up sales calls.

The employer fired him and the worker sued, arguing that the employer was interfering with his federal right to take an FMLA leave without work demands.

An appeals court has sided with the man and ruled that the case should go to trial. The court also noted that when evaluating the worker's performance and productivity, the employer counted the days that the man was away from work undergoing heart procedures. This of course unfairly affected his daily sales call averages, contributing to his poor performance review.

This case includes additional complexities that suggest employer wrongdoing. However, one simple lesson that can be learned from this case is that FMLA leaves are job-protected, meaning that employers cannot allow the leave itself to factor into one's standing at work. If this happens, an FMLA interference lawsuit can be filed.

Source: Business Management Daily, "Avoid FMLA suit: Cut slack for leave-takers," Dec. 5, 2012

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