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Ensure supervisors understand they must be alert for FMLA scenarios

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in FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Employees don’t always know to ask specifically for FMLA leave. Some may not even know they are entitled to time off for a serious health condition.

But that doesn’t mean you can ignore the obvious and discipline a worker for missing work when it’s clear he or she may be entitled to FMLA leave.

Make sure everyone—from first-line supervisors on up the chain of command—knows to refer to HR all employees who may need FMLA leave. Let them know what leave they may be entitled to and how to claim it.

Otherwise, you may learn what one employer recently discovered the hard way: Wrongly fire an ill employee for missing work and she just might win a big jury award.

Recent case: Christine worked for a trucking company for almost a decade with few problems. She earned regular promotions and raises. Then she suffered an extended bout of depression and used up all her banked sick leave and other time off.

She returned to work for a short time, but then voluntarily quit and moved away.

Eight years later, Christine returned and was rehired as a driver-manager, a job that required her to supervise up to 40 truck drivers. However, she soon began missing work. After telling her supervisor she was having trouble with her depression medication, she received an oral reprimand.

Six months later, Christine was absent for three days, but provided a medical excuse. She wasn’t officially reprimanded, but her next performance evaluation mentioned her absenteeism and her supervisor suggested she transfer to a less demanding position.

After a year passed, Christine’s condition took a turn for the worse. She went to the ER because of insomnia and depression. The doctor recommended she immediately seek out intense counseling, which she did the next day. She got a medical excuse for a week off and provided it to her supervisor while explaining her problems. Meanwhile, management moved her into a driver-recruiter position.

When Christine couldn’t return to work after a week, she was informed that the company might not hold her job. She again got a doctor’s excuse and gave it to her supervisor. This time, her doctors recommended a month off.

Christine’s supervisor then told her that the excuse didn’t make any difference. She was terminated for poor attendance.

No one had provided her with FMLA information, forms or any other resources for claiming FMLA leave.

Christine sued, alleging interference with her FMLA rights.

The court agreed that the company violated the law when it didn’t provide her with FMLA leave information and fired her for covered absences. The judge ordered almost $81,000 in back pay and then doubled the award to $162,000. The company appealed, but got nowhere with the back-pay award. (Dollar v. Smithway Motor Xpress, No. 11-2093, 8th Cir., 2013)

Final note: Address the FMLA in all supervisor training. Direct them to contact HR whenever an employee indicates she might have to miss work because of a serious health condition.

Also make sure employees know their FMLA rights. Include an FMLA notice in your employee handbook. Explain the leave process during orientation and at regular intervals afterward.

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