Set crystal-Clear rules governing employee absences

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in FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Employers are free to set reasonable no-call/no-show rules for all absences, including those that qualify for FMLA time off. Here’s an example: An employee who doesn’t call in before the start of a work shift can be fired for breaking the rule, unless a true emergency makes calling impossible.

On the other hand, if you discharge someone for failing to follow a rule that doesn’t spell out exactly how you expect employees to call in, don’t be surprised if you end up embroiled in a long, time-consuming and expensive legal battle.

Recent case: Stacey Heltzel worked for Dutchmen Manufacturing, as did her live-in boyfriend. Heltzel had a child with a serious health condition and often had to take time off to care for her when the illness restricted the child to bed rest.

Dutchmen had a strict rule that said failing to call in for two days would constitute job abandonment. But no one was quite clear on the call-in policy. Sometimes, Heltzel called in and spoke with a supervisor, but on several occasions Heltzel’s boyfriend called in and left messages.

When Heltzel didn’t call in for two days, the company fired her.

She sued the company for breaking FMLA rules. She said her boyfriend had called in for her—and had the cell phone records to prove it. That’s when the company said that it was the employee’s job to call, and no surrogate callers were allowed.

The court said a jury should decide the case because the rules were unclear. (Heltzel v. Dutchmen Manufacturing, No. 3:06-CV-0227, ND IN, 2007)

Advice: Set up a call-in hotline for messages. Then make sure all employees know exactly how and when to call. If you don’t want someone else to call on behalf of an employee, make that clear. Just remember that if an employee who qualifies for FMLA leave is incapacitated, the law says someone else can notify the employer in her place.

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