05.31.16

Tip Tuesday! FMLA violation? Worker said he was sick, walked off the job and was fired

by Christian Schappel

Here’s a scenario any manager could learn a valuable FMLA lesson from. 

An employee gets into an argument with his supervisor. A while later, still a little shaken up from the argument, the man begins to experience chest pains. He then tells a co-worker he thinks he may be having a heart attack.

The employee then tells the co-worker to tell their supervisor that he’s leaving for the day as a result of his symptoms, which the co-worker does.

But it was a well-known company practice that employees had to inform a supervisor directly before leaving work.

So the company fired the man that afternoon. The employee then sued, claiming FMLA interference (shortly after his termination had been processed, he submitted paperwork that he was suffering from a serious health condition).

Was this interference?

That’s how it happened … for real

This is the story of Randy Greene, a truck driver, and his employer YRC Inc., a freight company.

Greene thought he might have been having a heart attack, so he left work without completing his route for the day.

YRC essentially took this as a “voluntary quit” and processed his termination.

It fought to get a court to throw out his interference lawsuit, essentially claiming it didn’t interfere with Greene’s rights under the FMLA — because it had no idea he planned to take FMLA leave at the time his termination was processed.

Did the company win?

The court’s decision

No. The company lost when a judge said Greene’s lawsuit should proceed to trial, which means the company’s facing an expensive courtroom battle or settlement.

The judge said FMLA protections kick in the second an employer has been provided notice that an employee may be suffering from a serious medical condition — and that notice doesn’t have to come directly from the employee or even mention “FMLA.”

So after Greene’s co-worker told the supervisor that Greene left because of his symptoms, it was up to YRC to inquire further to see if the FMLA applied — and YRC failed to do so.

Don’t rush, make inquiries

Now it’s up to a jury to decide if Greene was protected by the FMLA and whether his rights were interfered with — and juries are often sympathetic to workers in these types of cases.

It serves as an important reminder for managers: An employee simply telling a co-worker “I’m sick” and having that message relayed to the manager may be enough to trigger FMLA protections. So managers shouldn’t make any hasty decisions after illness-related absences.

The key to avoiding litigation is to reach out to employees to get the full picture and then determine if the FMLA is in play.

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