Employers that give confusing directions on how employees should apply formay end up facing litigation.
Make sure your entire staff is on the same page when it comes to responding torequests. Decide on a contact person and set a policy that lets all employees know. Create a log for recording all incoming FMLA communications. Remember, certifications may come directly from medical providers, who are likely to use fax or mail delivery.
Recent case: Jacquelyn Cooper worked for Gulfcoast Jewish Family Services as a mental health therapist for about four years. Then she was promoted to director of elder behavioral health, a position she apparently found stressful. She began experiencing what she called severe anxiety.
Cooper sent an e-mail to both the HR administrator and the HR director, requesting a meeting to discuss problems she was having with her direct supervisor. Her message also informed them she wouldn’t be able to return to work that day because of “extreme anxiety.”
The next morning, she sent another e-mail explaining that she had been seen “by a medical professional and it was determined that I need to take some time off. I will keep you informed as I know more.” She copied her supervisor on the e-mail.
Cooper got an e-mail response a few minutes later from the HR director informing her that company policy required her to call her supervisor directly if she were going to be absent. The director wrote, “E-mails are not considered proper notification.”
The same e-mail advised Cooper that if her absence was related to medical issues, she might be eligible for FMLA leave and should contact the HR director directly by telephone.
Cooper than e-mailed everyone, explaining that she had called that morning and left messages on her supervisor’s voice mail.
The organization granted Cooper FMLA leave for a few days after her doctor provided a note, but warned her that she could be terminated if she didn’t submit backup documentation on time or properly request additional leave.
Meanwhile, the supervisor told Cooper to notify HR about any subsequent FMLA leave, while HR told her to contact her supervisor.
Eventually, Cooper was terminated, allegedly for failing to provide proper FMLA notification for subsequent absences. She sued.
The court concluded that the confusing directions raised the possibility that Cooper’s employer was using lack of proper notice as an excuse to deny more FMLA leave or punish her for taking leave. It ordered a trial. (Cooper v. Gulfcoast Jewish Family Services, No. 8:09-CV-787, MD FL, 2010)
Final notes: Yes, you can have separate call-in procedures. Obviously, supervisors need to know if their employees will be absent. But rejecting an FMLA request or ignoring it because it came via e-mail may be a mistake.
Think carefully about insisting on phone calls to request FMLA leave when e-mail is so commonly used for. Leave it as an option for employees who may not have e-mail at home, but make sure you can track the request by immediately logging it.
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