The Price of Non-Compliance: An Automaker in Alabama to Pay $438K for Engaging in Illegal FMLA Retaliation

The Family and Medical Leave Act grants substantial rights to workers and has the potential to impose significant penalties on employers who fail to comply with the law, as an employer in neighboring Alabama found out recently. Given how costly a violation can be (either to you as an employer or a worker,) it is highly important to know your FMLA rights and responsibilities. If you have questions or concerns, you should consult an experienced Atlanta FMLA retaliation lawyer.

An investigation that the U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division recently wrapped up is a good example of how employers can engage in FMLA retaliation, possibly even without malicious motivation.

The case involved two workers at an auto plant west of Birmingham, Alabama. One worker sought FMLA leave to care for a family member, and the other requested time off due to their own medical condition.

Both of these are potentially qualifying events under the FMLA. Under the statute, a condition can entitle a worker to leave if it is a “serious health condition.” The law says a serious health condition must be “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves: inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility; or continuing treatment by a health care provider.” The FMLA allows workers to take leave for their own serious health conditions or to deal with the serious health conditions of their spouses, children, or parents.

The workers’ absences triggered multiple consequences under the employer’s points-based workplace attendance policies. The workers received formal reprimands regarding their absences, lost monthly attendance bonuses, and ultimately lost their jobs because of the number of absence points they accrued.

‘No-Fault’ Attendance Rules and the FMLA

As this blog has discussed before, federal law allows employers to use points-based (or “no-fault”) attendance policies with the caveat that employers may not count certain absences against workers. Those include vacations, workers’ compensation-related absences, and approved FMLA leave.

This standard demands that workers suffer no adverse consequences from permissibly using FMLA leave. That includes both not taking adverse actions (like write-ups/reprimands, demotions, suspensions, or terminations) and not denying workplace benefits to which the workers otherwise would have been entitled (like bonuses for good attendance.)

Doing these things can constitute FMLA retaliation. Section 105 of the FMLA bans employers from “discriminating or retaliating against an employee or prospective employee for having exercised or attempted to exercise any FMLA right.” Basically, most any punishment your employer metes out because you took FMLA leave is a violation of the law against FMLA retaliation, whether that punishment was fueled by your employer’s ill will or was the automatic result of a facially neutral attendance policy. The WHD’s Fact Sheet #77B, which deals with the FMLA, explicitly mentions “counting FMLA leave under ‘no fault’ attendance policies” as an example of prohibited conduct.

As was the case with the automaker in Alabama, failure to comply with the law can be expensive – as the employer ultimately paid more than $438,000 for its FMLA violation.

One reason is something called “liquidated damages.” Under the FMLA, proof of employer retaliation entitles you to back pay, front pay, and liquidated damages. The amount of liquidated damages equals the combined sum of back pay and front pay, essentially obliging the employer to pay double damages. Unlike some statutes, the FMLA does not require proof that the employer willfully violated the law; any instance of retaliation will trigger the obligation to pay liquidated damages.

While the focus of FMLA law often centers around workers’ rights and employers’ responsibilities, the law also imposes obligations on workers and extends rights to employers. In other words, whether you’re a worker or an employer, it pays to have a complete understanding of your rights and responsibilities. The experienced Atlanta FMLA leave attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert can provide you with the knowledge you need to protect yourself. Get started today by contacting us at 404-873-8048 or through this website to schedule a consultation.

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