When Josie learned about her high-risk pregnancy, she asked her company about time off. She was told that FMLA was not available to her because the company had fewer than 50 employees so it was not covered by the FMLA, but she could take an unpaid leave of absence; that her position would be held for six weeks.
The employee handbook indicated that employees may be granted FMLA and may be placed in the same position/equivalent upon return. It went on to say that extended maternity leaves not medically required were considered personal leaves of absence, and the company did not guarantee placement within the same position at the conclusion of a family or medical leave of absence.
Josie gave birth and when she subsequently returned to work, she was placed in a lower-level position.
Being unhappy with her demotion, Josie talked to a number of company officials, but they indicated that they were going to stick with the position it currently offered.
A couple months later, Josie resigned, and subsequently filed a claim arguing, in part, that the company was equitably estopped (prohibited) from challenging her FMLA protections because it offers FMLA to its employees per the handbook and she "understood" and "detrimentally relied" on that information.
In finding for the employer in this claim, the court pointed out that the employer notified Josie before she went on leave that she was not entitled to FMLA. Despite the fact that Josie assumed — based on the handbook language — that she was automatically eligible for FMLA and that the language was a material misrepresentation, the court did not buy Josie’s argument.
The handbook did not state that all employees are eligible, or that FMLA leave is automatic, only that employees may be granted FMLA. Words have meanings and, in this case, the word “may” helped keep this company from losing the claim.
Friends, if you’re not covered by the FMLA, review your handbooks and other materials to employees and ensure that they do not give employees the idea that they are entitled to FMLA leave.
Jones v. Wireless Time of Alabama, LLC; U.S District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division; No. 2:20-00613, February 10, 2022
Key to remember: If your company isn’t covered by the FMLA, don’t give employees reason to believe they are entitled to the law’s protections.
This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault, SHRM-CP, PHR, CLMS, of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. The content of these news items, in whole or in part, MAY NOT be copied into any other uses without consulting the originator of the content.