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Don’t deny leave requests based on gender stereotypes

by on
in FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

After his wife gave birth, Kevin Knussman, a Maryland state trooper, applied for family leave. Because his wife had medical problems after the birth, Knussman asked for an extra 30 days of paid sick leave as the "primary" caregiver. Based on state policy, a primary caregiver could take up to 30 days' accrued leave after the birth of a child. A "secondary" caregiver could use only 10 days of sick leave.

In denying Knussman's leave request because he was the father (not the mother), the benefits manager said, "God made women to have babies and unless (Knussman) could have a baby, there is no way (he) could be primary caregiver." For the employee to qualify for the leave, the manager said, his wife would have to be "in a coma or dead."

Knussman filed suit claiming that he was improperly denied caregiver status under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). A jury decided the state and three of its employees violated both laws. This winter, a federal appeals court upheld the ruling. (Knussman v. State of Maryland, 4th Cir., No. 99-2349, 2001)

The court threw the book at the benefits manager, noting that "a reasonable leave benefits manager should have recognized that she was applying a gender-neutral leave statute in a discriminatory manner by making only men prove they were primary caregivers to newborn or adopted children."

Advice: Make sure your benefits managers or other employees who process employee leave requests are crystal clear on FMLA and state leave rights. These laws are gender neutral. Gender stereotypes have been shot down time and again by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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