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FMLA: A Painful Reminder of the Importance of Supervisor Training

The importance of training supervisors on how to recognize and deal with employee leave issues cannot be overstated. And here’s a painful example of why…

Grace, an employee at a group home where she provided support to residents with mental impairments, was unexpectedly hospitalized due to a mental health condition. Grace had her son call her employer to tell them that she was in the hospital and could not report to work. Grace’s son called the employer at least four times over the next week to advise that his mother was still in the hospital. He spoke with Grace’s direct supervisor, as well as the program manager and the HR department. Such notifications should have sounded alarm bells that Grace might have a “serious health condition” and may be entitled to leave under the FMLA. Which it did – sort of; an HR department staff person prepared an FMLA packet acknowledging that the employer had been informed Grace was on a medical leave. However, when Grace’s son informed her supervisor that Grace was able to speak, the supervisor became angry and said it was inappropriate for him to be calling on his mother’s behalf and told him not to call again. The supervisor did not ask the son any questions regarding Grace’s condition or whether there was something preventing Grace from calling herself.

The supervisor then went to the Vice President of HR and told her that Grace was hospitalized and unable to work. A few days later, the same supervisor advised the same Vice President of HR that Grace was a “no call/no show” when she failed to personally notify the employer of her continued absence. The HR manager asked no questions and, despite being aware Grace had been hospitalized, drafted a termination letter for one of the company’s executives to sign. Neither the supervisor nor HR advised the executive signing the termination letter that Grace had been hospitalized (and could be still for all they knew). When Grace was released from the hospital and returned to work a few days later, with a note from her doctor, she was informed she had been terminated for job abandonment.

Needless to say, the jury in the employee’s FMLA lawsuit was not sympathetic to the employer – Grace was awarded nearly $150K in back wages and benefits, as well as attorneys’ fees. Further, the court awarded Grace an additional $150K as liquidated damages, finding that the employer’s interference with her FMLA rights was willful and that the employer’s lack of supervisor training – and its failure to correct an obvious mistake – was evidence of its bad faith. Click here to read the court’s decision awarding liquidated damages, Boadi v. Center for Human Development.

The takeaway? Employers need to adequately train their supervisors (and in this case, apparently their HR managers) to recognize when an employee’s absence can trigger FMLA protection. Supervisors should be familiar with leave of absence and other personnel policies that may come into play due to an employee’s injury or illness. As illustrated above, an employer’s failure to do so can be costly.

Our team of experienced counsel can assist employers with questions on leave policies and all your labor and employment matters.