What do you do with employees who call in sick with vague excuses, aches and pains and other less-than-convincing reasons? Can you discipline those people for unexcused absences without fearing that they'll turn around later and claim those aches were truly a "serious condition" that warranted?
The answer is "Yes." Unless employees provide enough details at the time they request leave that their illness may amount to an-covered condition, simply calling in "sick" isn't enough to trigger FMLA leave.
As the following case shows, if you fire employees for unexcused absences, they can't provide after-the-fact proof of their FMLA-qualified condition. They need to show their cards up front or not at all.
Recent case: After Michael Woods left his car factory job four hours early one day, his supervisor warned him he could be fired for any further unexcused absences. The next Friday, he left early again without telling anyone.
On Monday, Woods left a voice message saying he had a doctor's appointment. The doctor prescribed anxiety medication and wrote a note advising Woods not to return to work until further evaluation. Woods didn't pass this information on to the company right away. Instead, he called in "sick" the next morning, too.
The HR department asked Woods to explain the absence by the end of the week. He didn't, so the company fired him. Only then did he bring up the anxiety issue and the doctor's note. He filed an FMLA lawsuit, saying the anxiety was a "serious condition" that merited leave. The court tossed out his case, saying Woods never showed that he needed FMLA leave despite being given several chances to explain. (Woods v. DaimlerChrysler, No. 04-1065, 8th Cir. 2005)
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