Congress made it illegal for employers to retaliate against an employee who’s used leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Here’s a good example why that’s important.
I currently represent a woman who was fired from her job at a 600-employee medical clinic just 25 minutes after she returned from surgery-related leave. We know from reviewing internal clinic emails that her coworkers got mad about their increased workload during her 21-day medical absence. We also know those same employees looked at her Facebook profile and were upset, apparently, that she didn’t stay bedridden while recovering. The status updates freely showed her engaging in some ordinary personal activities. Perhaps the coworkers felt if she was well enough to go out, she was well enough to get back to work. In fact, the surgery she had does not require 24/7 bedrest during recovery. Getting around is painful but actually speeds the recovery process. Her activities outside the house did not violate the FMLA or the clinic’s own rules. Judging by the way she was treated, though, I doubt this crossed anyone’s mind.
The coworkers’ reaction to the woman’s medical leave is disappointing, to say the least. But the supervisors’ actions made things even worse. They, too, appeared upset about the Facebook status updates, and even bought into the coworkers’ anger, asking them for printouts. In emails, the bosses speak of using the status updates to “strategize” a plan to deal with the woman upon her return. And “strategize” they did. At 8:30 AM the first morning back to work, her boss forced her into a meeting, in the presence of the HR chief. By 8:55 AM, just 25 minutes later, she was unemployed. Among the explanations given for the firing? My client’s “body language” told them she didn’t really want her job. These are textbook violations of the FMLA’s anti-interference and anti-retaliation provisions. The clinic should have put an immediate stop to the resentful hallway gossip. It should have explained the FMLA, and made it clear that covering a slightly heavier workload is normal, necessary, and temporary. And it should have quashed all talk and consideration of the Facebook status updates. Neither the FMLA nor good post-surgery recovery programs forbid normal daily activities while leave is under way. A large medical clinic, of all places, should know better.
Twenty-five minutes probably sets a record for firings following a return from FMLA leave. It’s a terrible situation, and a stark reminder of the need for legal protections for employees who have personal or family medical needs.
The case is Forte v. West Florida Medical Center Clinic PA, Case No. 3:14-CV-0001-RS-CJK, and is currently pending in federal court.