Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘family leave’

Can an employee on FMLA leave from work attend a night concert?

Monday, October 9th, 2017

A federal court in Texas has dismissed a claim of FMLA discrimination and retaliation by a woman who was fired after attending a Beyoncé concert while she was on personal medical leave. The railroad employee claimed that the company interfered with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act and illegally terminated her. The employer countered that she was fired for abusing the leave policy and failing to communicate with her managers per FMLA rules.

The Northern District of Texas judge shut down the woman’s claim with Beyoncé-like finality. But it raises the legitimate question of whether people on medical leave or family leave are entitled to enjoyment of life or expected to sit at home and recuperate in stoic solitude.

Employee’s actions during leave raised eyebrows

The Texas case, Jackson v. BNSF, involved a woman who was under pressure at work. Shortly after management placed her on a performance improvement plan, Ms. Jackson notified her boss that she was taking disability leave for an unspecified medical condition.

The Family and Medical Leave Act allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a personal health crisis or to care for a seriously ill family member. The employer is not entitled to full details or veto power. But the employer is entitled to ask for status updates and a schedule of when the employee expects to be in and out of the office.

At the beginning of her leave, Ms. Jackson was unresponsive to repeated inquiries about business matters, according to the court documents. A few weeks later, Jackson was spotted by a co-worker at the music concert. In fact, Jackson was watching Beyoncé from the employer’s corporate suite at the stadium.

The employer suspected her leave was an abuse of FMLA policy if not downright fraudulent. When asked to explain her presence at the concert, she did not respond. When pressed again, she emailed that her doctor had not cleared her to discuss work. When given an ultimatum to check in with her manager by a cutoff date, she did not respond. The company moved to terminate, and Jackson later filed suit for FMLA violations and retaliatory discharge.

What is the expectation of employees under FMLA leave?

The employee must give 30-day notice if the leave is foreseeable, or notice “as soon as practicable” if unforeseen. The employee must give the employer sufficient explanation of the nature of the leave. In the case above, Ms. Jackson told her bosses she was under a doctor’s care and was “not well to return to work.” A doctor could conceivably back up such a scenario.

By dismissing Jackson’s claim, the federal judge skirted the question of whether an employee who was not well enough to work could be well enough to attend a concert. Her disability leave, according to court documents, was ostensibly related to a “mental breakdown” over her workload and performance review. Returning to the workplace might have triggered anxieties that after-hours entertainment would not.

People on medical leave or family leave are not precluded from buying groceries, going to church, attending soccer games or otherwise “living their life.” But what about taking a long-planned family vacation while on leave from work? Or continuing with Wednesday night bowling league as a respite from caring for Mom during the day? Or seizing the golden opportunity to see “Queen Bey” from a luxury suite while on disability leave.

Such gray areas may merit legal advice from an employment law attorney. But one moral of the story for anyone on FMLA leave is to stay in communication with the employer. Once that dialogue is closed, the relationship may become highly adversarial.

This article was originally published by Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law on October 9, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Founded in 1990 by Edward H. Passman and Joseph V. Kaplan, Passman & Kaplan, P.C., Attorneys at Law, is focused on protecting the rights of federal employees and promoting workplace fairness.  The attorneys of Passman & Kaplan (Edward H. Passman, Joseph V. Kaplan, Adria S. Zeldin, Andrew J. Perlmutter, Johnathan P. Lloyd and Erik D. Snyder) represent federal employees before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and other federal administrative agencies, and also represent employees in U.S. District and Appeals Courts.

The Issue of Paid Family Leave Just Got Some New York Size Momentum

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

GELClogoOn April 4, New York State passed what is being hailed as the most comprehensive and generous paid family leave law in the country.  The Paid Family Leave Insurance Act (A. 3870 / S. 3004) (“PFLIA”) will provide workers in New York State with up to 12 weeks of paid leave per year, to bond with a new child, or to care for a seriously ill family member.  For military families, the leave time can be used to address legal, financial and childcare issues.  Notably, unlike the federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), coverage does not include taking care of an employee’s own medial condition.  That means, if unrelated to childbirth, employees would still need to seek time off under New York State’s Temporary Disability Insurance (“TDI”) program.

Beginning in 2018, all full and part-time employees who have been working at their jobs for at least six months will be eligible for eight weeks of paid leave up to one-half of their weekly wages, capped at 50% of the New York Statewide Average Weekly Wage (“SAWW”).  These payments will gradually phase in over four years until 2021 when workers will be entitled to 12 weeks of leave, for benefits up to two-thirds of their weekly salary, capped at a maximum of 67% of the SAWW.

The current SAWW is $1,266.44, through June 2016 (with predicted increases each year).  So, the benefit will be robust.  For instance, if an employee received family leave benefits today that would mean s/he could receive up to $633.22 per week; or $844.29 if the two-thirds rate was in effect.  As compared with maximum benefits workers in New York are eligible to receive under its Temporary Disability Insurance (“TDI”) program that’s a big improvement.  That program caps recipient benefits at a mere $170 per week.  Until now, TDI was the only financial recourse postpartum women in New York were eligible for – unless their employers wanted to be more generous (sometimes true for large corporations, rarely for smaller employers).  Although, beginning in 2018, women still would not be entitled to paid family leave in order to recover from their own childbirth recovery, they would be eligible to receive paid family leave to bond with their child at a vastly improved weekly wage replacement rate.

The PFLIA program is a fully employee-funded program, meaning, unlike several other states and localities, employers will not have to contribute to the cost.  Rather, employees will pay into a state sponsored insurance program and payments to workers will be paid out through this program.  These contributions will start at as little as 45 cents per week when the law goes into effect in 2018.  Thereafter, New York’s Superintendent of Financial Services will analyze what amount of funding the program needs based on the cost per worker of providing paid leave.  While the total per employee contribution remains unknown, an important premise behind the legislation is that employee contributions should represent a very small deduction from each employee’s weekly paycheck.  It is estimated that by year four that deduction will be 88 cents per week.

Significantly, paid leave is protected leave.  All qualified employees who take paid family leave will be entitled to return to their jobs.  If employers violate the law, employees will be entitled to reinstatement and back pay.  Unfortunately, there is no private right of action to go into Court.  Claims will have to be administered through the New York Worker’s Compensation Board which handles violations of the TDI law.

Several other states are now looking to follow New York’s lead.  Ohio just introduced a 12-week paid leave bill the same week New York’s law was signed.  Connecticut has introduced a bill as well that would entitle employees to be compensated up to $1,000 a week.  The proposed bill would cover employers with as little as two employees.

In 20 states, legislation has either been introduced or is being actively pursued.  Each of these proposed bills and programs strikes a different balance.  Some states would provide fully employer-funded paid programs, while others base their programs on models similar to that used in New York, making their proposed paid family leave benefits solely through employee contributions, and some are a mix of both.  What is covered under each of these proposed laws varies too.  Some cover all employers, while others limit coverage to larger employers, although many require less than the FMLA does with 50 or more employees as a basis for coverage.

These laws undoubtedly will offer a new generation of workers the family-job balance that previous generations did not have.  Not only will employees be less likely to face devastating economic choices when they decide to have children or need to care for a loved one, but as studies show, when family leave is paid, women are far less likely to be forced out of or choose to opt out of the workforce when having children.  This in turn will decrease a persistent wage gap between men and women who have children.  In addition, further studies document that men are far more likely to take family leave when it is paid, thereby bringing men and women closer to wage parity and more likely to share domestic responsibilities at home.

Nonetheless, as evidenced by this patchwork of laws and proposed bills, paid family leave – some, all or none – creates inequality among American workers when states offer inconsistent opportunities for work-life balance.  Even worse, many states still have no paid family leave laws on their books, and do not seem close to passing such legislation in the near future.  This result strongly emphasizes the need for national legislation that would allow us to join the rest of the industrialized world.  But as a start, we New Yorkers’ are proud of where our efforts have led – to the strongest, broadest, most generous paid family leave law in the country!  This law will make all the difference to the estimated 6.9 million workers in this state.

For more information about what you can do to support and/or expand family leave laws in your state check out what your legislators are doing and join family leave campaigns.  Or, contact us at the Gender Equality Law Center.

Allegra L. Fishel is the founder and Executive Director of the Gender Equality Law Center (“GELC”), a 501(c)(3) legal and advocacy center.  GELC’s mission is to advance laws and policies that promote gender equality in all spheres of public and private life.

Lauren T. Betters is a 2015 law school graduate of Northeastern Law School and GELC’s first Law Fellow.

D.C. Councilmembers To Introduce Bill Guaranteeing 16 Weeks Of Paid Family Leave

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

Bryce CovertOn Tuesday, seven city councilmembers in the District of Columbia will introduce a paid family leave bill that would create the most progressive system in the country and serve as a model for other cities that might be interested in paid leave. If it eventually gets passed and signed into law, it would be the first city-level program in the country.

The bill, spearheaded by Councilmembers David Grosso (I) and Elissa Silverman (I), would pay out 16 weeks of wages during a leave for a new baby or to care for a sick family member for those who both live in the District as well as those who live elsewhere but work there. That’s in line with the district’s current 16 weeks of unpaid but job guaranteed leave, but more generous than the 12 weeks in Congressional Democrats’ paid family leave bill and what’s offered in the three states that have implemented paid leave programs, which range from six to eight weeks.

Workers would also be able to avail themselves of a generous benefit. They would get fully reimbursed for the first $1,000 of their weekly pay, and then if they make more than that would get 50 percent of the next $1,000. The federal leave bill that’s been introduced by Democratic lawmakers, for instance, only replaces two-thirds of workers’ income, capped at $1,000 a week, and the three states that have implemented paid family leave have similar policies. “For the lowest-wage workers and even those in the middle class, especially in jurisdictions with a very high cost of living like Washington, D.C., it’s very difficult to make ends meet on a salary, and it’s impossible to make ends meet on half of a salary,” explained Kitty Richards, who works on Councilmember Silverman’s staff and was involved with the paid family leave bill. “We’ve seen that low-wage workers really struggle to take leave that’s paid out at a low rate.”

The funding structure for the program would also look slightly different given some of the unique circumstances in D.C. The district can’t mandate what the federal government offers its employees, so workers who either reside outside of the District or those who work for the federal government will have to pay into the fund through a payroll tax. But all other employers within the district will also pay a small tax — probably around 1 percent — into the fund.

D.C. has already passed some policies near and dear to progressives’ hearts: it raised its minimum wage to $11.50 by 2016, passed paid sick leave in 2008 and then strengthened it in 2014, and guaranteed eight weeks of paid family leave for city government employees late last year. (Tuesday’s paid family leave bill will also propose extending city employees’ paid family leave to 16 weeks to match all other employees’.)

Those efforts, particularly paid leave for city employees, inspired Grosso to find a way to implement paid family leave for all workers in the area. “Always in the back of my mind was, ‘How can we extend this to the private sector as well?’” he said.

His quest got a boost last year when the Department of Labor awarded the district with a $96,000 grant to study implementing paid family leave. That money allowed D.C. to get an accurate read of the costs and benefits of implementing a program. It also helped propel the effort forward. “Grants from the federal government are creating momentum and excitement and policy expertise around the issue,” noted Richards.

They’ll need that momentum moving forward to make sure the bill becomes reality. After its introduction Tuesday morning, it will get referred to committee and then will come hearings and input before it actually gets a vote. At least four councilmembers have already signed onto the bill with Grosso and Silverman, but they’ll have to work to get everyone on board. “It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint,” Silverman noted. “Getting to the introduction is kind of like getting to the half marathon mark.”

“The main issue is to make sure that what moves forward is a really strong bill, that we don’t just pass something but pass something that’s really strong,” said Rebecca Ennen, development and communications director at Jews United for Justice, a group that has been deeply involved in pushing the bill forward.

Then Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) would have to sign it — she’s believed to be supportive — and the fund would have to be set up and fully funded before any District residents can actually take paid leave. If things go quickly and smoothly, Grosso estimates that the bill could be on the mayor’s desk within six months and, if it were signed, residents could start taking leave a year later.

Success won’t just mean guaranteeing benefits for D.C. residents. Those involved hope that the bill and the program design can be replicated elsewhere. While three states have paid family leave, the U.S. is an outlier among nearly the entire world for not guaranteeing paid maternity leave and among developed countries for not guaranteeing paid paternity leave. “I think we have the opportunity to set a standard here in the District and be a model,” Silverman said.

Grosso agrees. “We’re hoping to bring national attention to this so we can be a model for other jurisdictions getting this done at the local level,” he noted. While the vast majority of paid sick leave bills have passed at the city level, all paid family leave programs have been statewide. But D.C.’s effort might inspire other cities to take it up.

 

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on October 6, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

 

Carly Fiorina Thinks Corporations Should Be Able To Deny Paid Leave To New Mothers

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

 

Bryce CovertAfter Jake Tapper, host of CNN’s State of the Union, asked Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina about Netflix’s announcement that it will offer a year of unlimited paid family leave, the former Hewlett Packard CEO said she opposes any requirement that employers offer their workers paid leave.

“I don’t think it’s the role of government to dictate to the private sector how to manage their businesses, especially when it’s pretty clear that the private sector, like Netflix…is doing the right thing because they know it helps them attract the right talent,” she said. “I’m not saying I oppose paid maternity leave. What I’m saying is I oppose the federal government mandating paid maternity leave to every company out there.”

But the vast majority of private sector employers don’t seem to agree that offering paid leave is the right thing to do. Only 12 percent of workers in the private sector get paid family leave from work. These benefits are also far more likely to be offered to higher-income, white collar workers and not to the low-income workers who may need it the most to be able to afford time off. Just 5 percent of the lowest-paid 25 percent of employees get paid family leave, compared to 21 percent of the highest 25 percent.

Fiorina noted that while she was at Hewlett Packard, the company offered paid maternity and paternity leave. Current online versions of its employee handbook only refer to “several leave opportunities to provide additional time when you need it, including [unpaid] Family and Medical (FMLA) Leave, state family leaves, [and] parental leave” without specifying how much leave employees might get. But in response to a New York Times inquiry in 2013, the company said new mothers get six weeks of full pay under a short-term disability plan with additional weeks at lower pay, while new fathers get just 10 days.

Netflix and other technology companies have made headlines for far more generous leave: Netflixannounced unlimited paid leave for the first year after the arrival of a child, while Google offersfive months and many others offer 17. But they are the exception to the norm. And without a requirement, leave policies will differ wildly from workplace to workplace.

The lack of a federal law requiring maternity and paternity leave makes the U.S. a lonely outlier on the world stage. It is one of just three countries among 185 that doesn’t guarantee new mothers paid time off, while another 70 include new fathers.

Three states have decided to enact their own policies: California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. And the evidence from those experiments goes against Fiorina’s claim that it would be “ineffective” and “hypocritical” for government to mandate leave when it “hasn’t gotten its basic house in order.” In California, the vast majority of businesses report that the paid leave law had either a positive impact or none at all on profitability, employee performance, and productivity and it helped reduce turnover. In New Jersey, the majority of businesses also say that it hasn’t hurt their finances, while some saw similar benefits.

Paid family leave is generally found to keep women in the labor force and to expand it. The savings in turnover can come to an estimated $89 million a year for the country’s employers. But the lack of paid leave is one of the reasons that the country’s rate of women in the labor force is being far outpaced by other developed countries.

Fiorina has also come out against issues related to women’s equality in the past. She opposes the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is aimed at closing the gender wage gap, and blames the gap on unions and government bureaucracies.

“This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on August 10, 2015. Reprinted with permission.”

Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

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