By Angela M. Ward, Attorney
From childbirth to unexpected illness, life can throw curve balls that make it difficult to continue working, sometimes for an extended period. The fear of losing a job often adds more stress to an already overwhelming situation. Thankfully, the Family and Medical Leave Act exists to help in these times of need. Established in 1993, this federal labor law provides unpaid, job-protected leave to qualified employees for a variety of medical and family reasons. Unlike some states, Pennsylvania does not have state laws regarding time off for family and medical issues. Employees in Pennsylvania only have the rights guaranteed under FMLA.
Like other labor laws, the FMLA offers protections against discrimination, but discrimination still occurs. That’s why Lancaster County employees need to know their rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act and, if necessary, seek the help of an FMLA attorney to protect those rights.
Who Does the Family and Medical Leave Act Cover?
FMLA covers employees of federal, state, and local public agencies, including public schools, as well as employees of private companies that had 50 or more employees during 20 or more workweeks in the current or previous calendar year. To qualify for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked for the company for at least a year and worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous calendar year. They also must work at a location where there are at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.
What Situations Qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act?
In cases of childbirth, adoption, or a new foster child, both parents are eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for and bond with the child if they work for a qualified employer and meet the employee requirements. FMLA also extends to those serving in loco parentis, meaning someone who provides day-to-day care and financial support to the child even if there is no biological or legal relationship.
Serious Health Condition
An employee may take FMLA leave if they are unable to work due to their own serious health condition or to care for a child, spouse, or parent with a serious health condition. Those conditions might include pregnancy, illnesses requiring a hospital stay or extended treatments, or chronic conditions that occasionally leave the employee or relative incapacitated.
Military Family Leave
FMLA leave may apply under certain situations related to military deployment. An employee may also take up to 26 weeks of FMLA leave in one 12-month period to care for a covered servicemember with a serious illness or injury.
How Does FMLA Work?
An eligible employee may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period. The Family and Medical Leave Act offers the flexibility of taking that leave in a single chunk, such as 12 weeks to care for a new child, or in smaller blocks of time, such as occasional medical treatments or returning to work on a part-time basis after surgery. An employer must continue the employee’s health coverage during the leave and guarantee the same job or a nearly identical job when the employee returns. In cases where there is accumulated paid leave, such as sick days or vacation days, an employer may require the employee to use it or an employee may choose to use it as part of the FMLA leave so they continue to receive some pay during their absence.
How to Recognize FMLA Discrimination
Family and medical leave is an employee right under federal law. While most employers honor that right, some do not. An employee who has taken or is considering FMLA leave should be on the lookout for these forms of FMLA discrimination:
Denied Leave May Qualify as FMLA Discrimination
An employer may not refuse to authorize FMLA leave for a qualified employee or attempt to manipulate an employee’s hours or work history to disqualify them from taking leave.
Failure to Honor Terms of the Leave May Qualify as FMLA Discrimination
Discrimination can occur after FMLA leave if an employer refuses to hold a job for an employee or returns them to a lesser position with lower pay, fewer benefits, and an unfavorable work schedule.
Wrongful Discipline May Qualify as FMLA Discrimination
Employees who work for a company with a no-fault attendance policy should be aware of potential discrimination should the company penalize them for taking FMLA leave. No-fault policies allow companies to keep a point system for unexcused absences, regardless of the reason, and to discipline or even fire employees who have accumulated a certain number of points. By law, however, such policies must exclude FMLA absences.
Using FMLA Leave as a Negative Factor in Employment Decisions May Qualify as FMLA Discrimination
On a more subtle level, an employer may wrongly assume that a parent who takes a leave of absence to bond with a newborn or an employee who cares for an ailing relative cannot fully dedicate themselves to their jobs. In those cases, they may discriminate against an employee who has taken FMLA leave when it comes time for hirings and promotions.
How to Protect Against FMLA Discrimination
Lancaster County employees who find it necessary to take a leave of absence should discuss all rights and requirements with their employer and thoroughly review policies regarding paid and unpaid leave in their employee handbook. Even in an at-will state such as Pennsylvania, where employers can generally fire workers at any time and for any reason, an employee may have a case for discrimination or wrongful termination if the employer ignored polices written in the employee handbook.
Lancaster County workers who believe their employers wrongfully denied their FMLA leave or discriminated against them because they took FMLA leave should seek the guidance of an experienced FMLA lawyer. An FMLA attorney can file paperwork to compel an employer to approve FMLA leave or, in the case of discrimination, ensure that an employee receives compensation for lost wages and benefits.
Contact the Law Offices of Going and Plank in downtown Lancaster. We can evaluate the case, gather necessary evidence, file a claim promptly, and protect against retaliation.
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