The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) celebrated its 20th anniversary with new coverage extensions for military families and airline employees. While CFOs may roll their eyes at additional government regulations, a January ruling in a FMLA court case serves as a reminder that employers overlook the requirements of the FMLA and other employment laws at their peril.
The FMLA, passed in 1993, allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per 12-month period to deal with family situations or their own health problems. Some examples of FMLA-eligible situations include the birth or adoption of a child, the employee’s own health issues and the need to care for a seriously ill family member.
This month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released final rules expanding the law to cover employees taking leave to handle any of the above situations that are a result of a spouse, son, daughter, or parent being on covered active military duty. In addition, the law now allows 26 weeks of leave per year for employees who are caring for a spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next-of-kin who is a military service member with a serious injury or illness. The law was also amended to address the unique needs of airline employees. The DOL has a summary and fact sheets on various aspects of the law available here.
Although these changes to the law may not be welcome, employers need to be prepared to adhere to the law and, more importantly, to make sure employees, particularly supervisors and managers, are well versed on what the law requires. It only takes one uninformed supervisor to get a company into hot water under the FMLA.
An analysis by the Reed Group, a Westminster, Colo.-based leave and absence management firm, breaks down the actual and estimated costs of just one court case an employer lost because an uninformed supervisor fired an employee for taking medical leave under the FMLA. The case, Hurley v. Kent of Naples, Inc., et al., resulted in $1,016,339 in court-ordered payments for damages, lost pay and plaintiff attorneys’ fees. The Reed Group added an estimate of $250,000 for the employer’s own attorney fees and costs related to the case for a total of more than $1.2 million.
This type of scenario in which a supervisor knowingly or unknowingly violates employment law is not uncommon. True, there is a veritable alphabet soup of laws to consider and it is unreasonable for these individuals to be an expert on all of them. That is why it is so important that companies commit to ongoing training in all employment law requirements, not just the FMLA.
Having trained HR professionals and legal counsel available to provide support and answer questions is undoubtedly important. However, it is equally if not more important to train and educate employees so that they know when to ask those questions and seek support. To do otherwise is inviting costly and unnecessary legal action like that in the Hurley case.