Dr. Tina Thomas, an optometrist with Pearle Vision Inc., requested maternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). After all, a summary of employee benefits said "all employees with a year of service who worked 1,250 hours with Pearle in the 12 months immediately prior to requesting leave" were eligible. Her manager gave her an FMLA checklist and other forms to complete.

But Thomas, who worked full time at Pearle's office in Peoria, Ill., was nervous about one clause of the benefit description. It said some highly compensated employees would not be guaranteed their positions if they took leave. Although a regional manager told Thomas not to worry, the HR manager told her there might ?not be a position for her following the leave. Pearle never notified her of that in writing.

Thomas didn't find out she had lost her job until months later, when a regional manager left a message on her answering machine. That's when she headed to court.

Because Pearle had fewer than 50 workers within 75 miles of its Peoria store, Thomas wouldn't normally have been automatically eligible for FMLA. But a court refused to throw out her case.

Reason: The company's benefit plan description created an enforceable contract granting Thomas those rights. Plus, the company acted as if she was entitled to the leave when it gave her FMLA forms to complete. If the company didn't want to grant such rights to all employees, the court said, it should have worded its policy more carefully. (Thomas v. Pearle Vision Inc., No. 00-3681, 7th Cir., 2001)

Advice: First, make sure you know which laws apply to your company. Then write your policies carefully so your employees won't be covered under laws from which they'd normally be exempt. If your company decides to comply with a law it's not required to comply with, such as FMLA, make sure you stick to it.

The language in your employee handbook can create a binding contract. Be especially careful if you have multiple locations where different laws may apply.

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