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Family and Medical Leave Act: Legal Principles and Business Implications

Introduction

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is an invaluable employment law for the United States’ workers. It enables workers to take job-protected leave to adopt a child, give birth, or in case of sickness. The Act allows employees to attend to family matters. In addition, the FMLA gives employees a chance to attend to their sick relatives while holding on to their employment, medical insurance, and some degree of financial security (Anthony 460). The law applies to organizations with at least 50 workers. However, employees are supposed to have worked in an organization for at least one year. In 2007, it was estimated that over 94.4 million workers in the United States benefited from the FMLA (Anthony 467). Although the Act is meant to protect workers from insensitive employers, it eliminates cases of unnecessary absenteeism. Therefore, the Act benefits both employees and employers. It guarantees that workers remain in their workplaces and that they notify their employers in advance before taking leave. In 2013, the Act was amended to cater for emergency leave. Today, the Act enables military workers to apply for exigency leave due to the nature of their work.

Legal Principles

An employee has to satisfy several legal principles for him/her to qualify for the FMLA leave. First, an employee should be working in an organization with a minimum of 50 workers. Second, a worker has to have worked in an organization for at least one year. Third, one is required to have worked in a company for at least 1250 hours. Anthony alleges, “The employee must be working for a company that employs at least fifty people within a seventy-five-mile radius, and the length of leave is limited to twelve weeks within a year” (469). An employee is not remunerated for the days that s/he is on leave. The Act does not allow workers to take sick leave unless they are seriously ill. According to the Family and Medical Leave Act, an illness is considered serious if it requires over “three successive days of treatment and involves more than one medical treatment via doctor or hospital” (Anthony 471). Hence, the Act does not cover illnesses like flu, headache, dental problems, earaches, and stomach upsets. A worker has to give one-month notice prior to going on leave. Once the leave is over, the employee is entitled to return to his/her previous post. However, an employer is at liberty to assign an employee to a different position as long as it does not affect the worker’s salary and benefits.

Implications of FMLA on Businesses

The Family Medical Leave Act facilitates flexible leave applications. It gives workers a chance to go for leave on a reduced work schedule or intermittent basis according to the motives of the leave application. The Act obliges employers to grant workers a reduced work schedule or intermittent leave for reasons associated with foster care, birth, or sickness. The primary challenge of FMLA is that it does not define intermittent leave (Baum 581). Therefore, employers and workers are supposed to agree on the terms to use in case of employees request intermittent leave. The Act gives employers the freedom to relocate their staff to positions or departments that accommodate alternating absences. However, employers must ensure that the revocation does not affect employees’ salaries and benefits. Moreover, the Act requires employees to organize their reduced work schedule or intermittent leave in a way that they do not undeservedly interfere with organizational operations (Baum 584). It may be difficult for employees to plan for sick leave since they require consent from their doctors. In case an employee is unable to perform his/her duties due to recurrent health challenges, the employer has the final discretion to relocate the worker to a less demanding post. Alternatively, the employer can purge some crucial job functions so as to accommodate the intermittent leave.

Even though businesses may adjust key job functions to allow a member of staff to remain in the same post, the FMLA forbids employers from taking such actions to stop employees from going on leave. At times, an employee may request for FMLA leave at a time when his/her services are seriously demanded. Therefore, some employers support the amendment of the FMLA to enable them to “modify employees’ duties including removal of essential functions instead of FMLA leave” (Baum 591). They argue that changing employee responsibilities may help to minimize the number of workers who apply for FMLA leave, therefore reducing the burden on the employers and other workers. Employers who are opposed to FMLA leave argue that if job modification can enable an employee to execute crucial tasks, there would be no need for such an employee to request intermittent or reduced work schedule leave. The employers argue that some employees may take advantage of the Act to stay away from work. Unfortunately, it is hard for an organization to ascertain if employees spend their FMLA leave taking care of their sick relatives (Gerstel and McGonagle 512). Hence, some workers take advantage of the Act at the expense of the organizations.

Medical practitioners recommend that employers should “Use the FMLA to assist the employees to consider alternatives for a better health solution than taking time off from work” (Gerstel and McGonagle 514). They allege that amendment of the Family and Medical Leave Act would benefit both the employees and employers. There are no legal provisions that deny workers the right to decide whether or not to go for intermittent leave. Modifying essential job functions may be time-consuming. In addition, it can lead to disagreements between employees and employers. Moreover, alteration of essential job functions may result in a business contravening other Acts like the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) (Gerstel and McGonagle 517). Consequently, modification of FMLA would require the adjustment of other employment laws to accommodate the change. On the other hand, modification of vital job tasks would create an impression that the tasks are not so significant, therefore leading to employees calling for the removal of the tasks altogether. Therefore, it may affect the operations of a business.

The FMLA is inescapable (Grossman 19). Companies continue hiring parents. Hence, at some point, they are forced to give them leave so as to take care of their sick relatives or look after their children. The only way that organizations cope with FMLA is by modifying their operation policies. Some businesses implement workplace flexibility as a measure to deal with the Family and Medical Leave Act (Grossman 21). Business leaders train the management and supervisors in the fundamental aspects of FMLA so as to enable them to educate workers on how to apply for leave. Communication is very crucial in the implementation of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Employers discuss with employees the available options for taking FMLA leave. Communication helps to eradicate not only misconceptions, but also cases of employees applying for leave just because the law allows them to do so. Some employees believe that only a few workers are eligible for flexible schedules (Kelly 37). Consequently, they ask for FMLA leave once they get a chance due to fear that they might not get another chance. It leads to multiple employees asking for leave at the same time. Failure to grant employees FMLA leave may result in litigations that could be costly to an organization. Therefore, business operators inform workers about flexible schedules, thus avoiding cases of multiple employees applying for leave at the same time (Kelly 41).

Previously, family and employment were regarded as two different entities. Individuals had to choose between excelling in work and looking after their families. However, today, the two are inseparable (Kubasek et al. 34). The FMLA obliges businesses to come up with work schedules that enable workers to have time with their family members. Employers have opted to be supportive to their employees to ensure that they balance family and work duties. They do not necessarily reduce the number of hours that every employee works. Instead, employers help employees to design schedules that enable them to attend to family issues. In some cases, employees refuse to take FMLA leave because they do not receive a salary for the days that they stay away from work (Kubasek et al. 38). Instead, they opt to continue working, and this affects their productivity. Therefore, employers encourage those who refuse to go for leave to merge their paid leave with FMLA leave. It avoids cases of employees requesting both paid and FMLA leave and also helps a company to meet the terms of FMLA.

Rodriguez vs. University of Miami Hospital

The case involved Rodriguez, who was an employee of the University of Miami Hospital. Rodriguez filed a lawsuit because the hospital fired her immediately after she returned from FMLA leave. She alleged that the hospital took the action as reprisal for taking leave. Upon returning from leave, Rodriguez was relocated to a different post with the same benefits and remuneration, but practically no duties (Zalewski par. 3). The hospital’s human resource director alleged that they “decided to relocate Rodriguez after she said that she was not comfortable working with her supervisor” (Zalewski par. 4). According to Rodriguez, the hospital’s actions amounted to retaliation and interference. However, she was unable to provide adequate evidence to show that the employer fired her as an act of revenge for taking FMLA leave. The judge allowed the interference suit to proceed after realizing that Rodriguez was not relocated to a comparable position. The judge admitted that the relocation impeded her restoration rights (Zalewski par. 4). The explanations that the human resource director gave to support his actions were not compelling and unrelated to FMLA leave. Moreover, the facts adduced in court revealed a lot of incoherencies. The director was unable to substantiate his allegations that Rodriguez declined to associate with her past administrator.

From the case, it is clear that an employer is supposed to serve a court with non-discriminatory evidence in case a worker accuses the employer of reprisal. Besides, the employee is supposed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that an employer’s actions amount to retaliation. On the other hand, if a worker alleges interference, s/he is supposed to prove that the employer deprived him/her of some privileges or rights. On the other hand, the employer has to show that the contested actions were adopted for motives not linked to the FMLA leave (Zalewski par. 9).

Conclusion

The Family and Medical Leave Act allow workers to take unpaid leave to look after their sick relatives or children with a guarantee to return to their original job positions after leaving. Only the employees who work in organizations with at least fifty workers qualify for the leave. In addition, a worker is supposed to have worked for a company for a minimum of 1250 hours. The Family and Medical Leave Act has numerous impacts on an organization. It deters employers from dismissing employees who are unable to perform certain duties due to health challenges. Instead, employers are obliged to relocate the employees to tasks that can allow them to take intermittent leave. Employers are not allowed to alter crucial job functions. Therefore, they are compelled to introduce flexible work schedules that allow employees to take intermittent leave. In most cases, employees file lawsuits alleging retaliation or interference by employers of their rights to FMLA leave. In case of retaliation, the court requires the complainant to prove that the employer violated his/her rights. Therefore, the burden lies on the claimant. On the other hand, claims of interference require the employer to prove that s/he acted within the FMLA guidelines. The employer is required to show that his/her actions were taken for motives not connected to the Family and Medical Leave Act. Otherwise, the judge may use the evidence presented in court to determine if the employer’s actions amounted to interference or retaliation.

Works Cited

Anthony, Deborah. “The Hidden Harms of the Family and Medical Leave Act: Gender-Neutral Versus Gender-Equal.” Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law 16.4 (2008): 459-503. Print.

Baum, Charles. “The Effect of State Maternity Leave Legislation and the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act on Employment and Wages.” Labour Economics 10.5 (2007): 573-596. Print.

Gerstel, Naomi and Katherine McGonagle. “Job Leaves and the Limits of the Family and Medical Leave Act: The Effects of Gender, Race, and Family.” Work and Occupations 26.4 (2008): 510-534. Print.

Grossman, Joanna. “Job Security without Equality: The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.” Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 15.17 (2009): 17-34. Print.

Kelly, Erin. “Failure to Update: An Institutional Perspective on Noncompliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act.” Law & Society Review 44.1 (2010): 33-66. Print.

Kubasek, Nancy, Neil Browne, Linda Barkacs, Daniel Herron, Carrie Williamson and Lucien Dhooge. Dynamic Business Law. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014. Print.

Zalewski, Ed. Family and Medical Leave Act Court Case has Lesson for Employers, Employees. 2013. Web.