The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal employment law that allows eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for qualified medical and family reasons.
During a period of FMLA-qualified leave, the employer is required to continue providing group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. The employer is obligated to either retain the employee’s job until they return or offer an equivalent position with equivalent compensation upon their return.
At its core, the FMLA is intended to protect employees from being demoted or terminated in the event that the employee or a family member becomes chronically ill or critically injured. The FMLA is administered and enforced by the Wage and Hour Division (WHD), a division of the US Department of Labor.
Eligibility for FMLA
In order to qualify for unpaid leave under the FMLA, an employee must have worked with the employer for the past 12 months. During those 12 months, the employee is required to have worked at least 1,250 hours. Employees who don’t meet these qualifications are not eligible for FMLA.
Additionally, the FMLA only applies to employers with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius. Employers that are covered by the FMLA can’t deny qualified unpaid leave to eligible employees, but the employee may be required to provide advance notice and/or medical certification.
Qualified unpaid leave
Eligible employees of covered employers may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave over a 12-month period for any of the following reasons:
- The birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth
- The adoption or foster care placement of a child within one year of adoption/placement
- To provide care for the employee’s parent, spouse, or child who has a chronic medical condition, critical illness, or critical injury
- A chronic health condition, critical illness, or critical injury that renders the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job
- Any qualifying exigency that arises from the fact that the employee’s parent, spouse, or child is a covered military member on covered active duty
Employees who have a parent, spouse, child, or next of kin who is a covered service member may be eligible for additional unpaid leave. Eligible employees are allowed up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave over a 12-month period to provide care for a covered service member with a critical illness or injury.
Violations of the FMLA
Section 105 the FMLA expressly prohibit employers from taking any of following actions:
- Restraining, interfering with, or denying the exercise of, or the attempt to exercise, an employee’s FMLA rights
- Discriminating or retaliating against an employee or prospective employee for exercising or attempting to exercise their FMLA rights
- Discharging or otherwise discriminating against any person (employee or not) for opposing or complaining about unlawful practices under the FMLA
Additionally, the FMLA prohibits all persons (not just employers) from discharging or otherwise discriminating against any person (employee or not) because that individual has:
- Filed a charge, has instituted, or caused to be instituted, any proceeding under or related to the FMLA
- Given, or is about to give, any information in connection with an inquiry or proceeding relating to any rights under the FMLA
- Testified, or is about to testify, in an inquiry or proceeding relating to a right under the FMLA
For illustrative purposes, some examples of prohibited acts include:
- An employer who refuses to authorize FMLA leave for an eligible employee
- An employer who discourages an employee from using FMLA leave
- A supervisor who manipulates an employer’s work hours to avoid employer obligations under the FMLA
- A supervisor who uses an employee’s valid request for or use of FMLA as a negative factor in employment decisions, such as demotion, disciplinary action, or termination
- An employer who counts FMLA leave under “no fault” attendance policies
Penalties for FMLA violations
There are two types of FLMA claims that the WHD can investigate:
- An interference claim – the employer denied or interfered with an employee’s rights under the FMLA
- A retaliation claim – the employee suffered an adverse employment action that was based on the employee’s qualified use of the FMLA
When an FMLA investigation discovers enough evidence that the employer violated the law, the WHD can seek reparations on behalf of the employee. In rare cases where an employer refuses to satisfactorily resolve the matter, the Department of Labor may pursue action in court to compel compliance. Employees also have the right to bring a private civil action against an employer for violations.
The penalties that an employer may face for violations of the FMLA will depend on how the wronged employee has been negatively impacted. Generally speaking, an FMLA settlement agreement or court judgement will include the following damages:
- Lost back pay – includes salary, wages, and benefits that the employee lost due to the employer’s interference or retaliation. Typically covers lost earnings from the date of the negative activity (termination, demotion, etc.) to the date of the settlement agreement or court judgement.
- Lost front pay – includes salary, wages, and benefits that the employee stands to lose in the future due to the employer’s interference or retaliation. This is typically based on how long the employee may reasonably take to find a comparable job with comparable compensation.
- Liquidated damages – liquidated damages are automatically awarded to the employee unless the employer can prove that they acted in good faith (e.g. the employer provides evidence that denying FMLA was an honest mistake). Liquidated damages are typically equal to the amount of awarded back pay and front pay, and therefore doubles the size of the monetary penalty.
- Repayment for court costs – when an employee is successful in their case against the employer, the employer will be required to cover any court costs and attorney fees that the employee incurred during litigation (note that an employee doesn’t incur any costs in the course of a WHD investigation—only when he or she pursues separate civil action).
Statute of limitations
If you have been wronged or retaliated against for exercising your rights under the FMLA, you have up to two years to file a claim with the WHD (three years for willful violations). Claims and lawsuits filed more than two years after the alleged incident may still be allowed, but you would not be able to recover back pay beyond the past two years.
Need Help With An Employment Law Issue?
The state of Arizona is a great place to live and work, but knowing the employment laws will help you a lot. Whether you are a newcomer to the state or a lifelong resident, understanding your workplace protections is good for your career, and the more you know, the better.
Employment law issues can cause extreme distress and can affect productivity on the job. If you are being harassed at work, or dealing with any other employment issue, consider talking to our AZ employment law team to help you settle your case.
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