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When FMLA Meets Performance Metrics: A Case Study

When FMLA Meets Performance Metrics: A Case Study

The recent decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has brought to light crucial implications for employers’ responsibilities under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This ruling emphasizes the need for employers to adjust performance expectations for employees who are on approved FMLA leave. Continue reading to dive into the details of this decision and its potential impact on how employers navigate the FMLA.

Brief Overview Of The FMLA

The FMLA is a federal labor law that provides certain employees with essential benefits related to leave for family or health issues. The purpose of the FMLA is to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities, allowing eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family and medical reasons.

Employees are eligible if they have worked for their employer for at least 12 months. In addition, they must have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months. The employer must have 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the employee’s location.

Qualified employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for the following reasons:

  • Birth and care of a newborn child
  • Adoption or foster care placement of a child
  • Caring for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition
  • Taking medical leave when the employee is unable to work due to a serious health condition 

Employer responsibilities

Employers covered by the FMLA must provide eligible employees with the specified leave. Group health benefits must be maintained during the leave. FMLA applies to public agencies, public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. Time taken off work due to pregnancy complications can count towards the 12 weeks of family and medical leave for the allocated year.

The Case: OSF HealthCare System Vs. Former Employee

A former employee of OSF HealthCare, an Illinois-based health care provider, filed a lawsuit claiming they violated her rights under the FMLA. The plaintiff alleged that the company failed to reasonably adjust its performance expectations to reflect her reduced hours while on leave. She cited instances where unadjusted deadlines were imposed despite her reduced office hours. In addition, she highlighted a substantial increase in workload during her leave period, including integrating two acquired hospitals into her unit. The plaintiff also pointed out that certain goals required mentorship, which she did not receive, and coordination with others outside her authority or control.

In response, OSF defended its actions by stating the plaintiff was terminated for not meeting performance expectations outlined in a performance improvement plan (PIP) established upon her return. A PIP is a written document that outlines an employee’s performance gaps and provides a roadmap for improvement.

Court Ruling And Implications

The district court initially ruled in favor of the defendant, emphasizing the plaintiff failed to establish a causal connection between the exercise of her FMLA rights and her termination. However, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals highlighted a genuine dispute over the amount of approved leave the plaintiff took, which could impact the outcome of the case. The court ruled that such a significant difference in testimony regarding the duration of leave warranted resolution by a jury.

The appeals court also questioned the timing and motivation behind implementing the PIP, emphasizing that the defendant did not communicate to the employee that poor performance led to the PIP or that deficiencies would result in termination. Consequently, the court vacated the decision and remanded the case for trial, underlining the need for a jury to assess the sincerity of the employer’s motivation.

Key Takeaways For Employers

The ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals serves as a vital reminder for employers regarding their responsibilities under the FMLA. It underscores the following key implications:

  • Adjusting performance expectations: Employers must adjust performance expectations for employees on approved FMLA leave, considering reduced hours and potential limitations resulting from the leave. 
  • Causal connection: Establishing a causal connection between an employee's use of FMLA leave and their termination is crucial in FMLA cases. Employers should ensure that disciplinary actions are not perceived as retalitory or interfering with the employee's FMLA rights. 
  • Transparency and communication: Employers need to effectively communicate performance-related concerns and any subsequent disciplinary measures to employees, especially in cases where FMLA leave is involved. Lack of transparency could be perceived as pretextual and potentially lead to legal ramifications. 

Stay Compliant, Partner With A PEO

The intricacies of the FMLA can feel overwhelming for small business owners. However, there’s a strategic solution: partner with a professional employer organization (PEO) like GMS. We offer expertise in HR compliance, assist with leave requests associated with FMLA, and ultimately ensure you’re compliant with FMLA regulations. It’s time for you to focus on propelling your business forward and let us handle the nitty-gritty aspects of your business. It’s a win-win scenario that empowers businesses to thrive. Contact us today to learn more.

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