This employer was shoved between a rock and a hard place. But management chose to handle the situation … um … poorly. 

Tondalaya Evans put her employer, book seller Books-A-Million (BAM), in a position no employer wants to be in: She was an irreplaceable employee who’d just requested leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to give birth and care for her newborn.

Evans was a payroll manager who requested to take leave smack in the middle of the installation of BAM’s new payroll system — an installation that Evans was a vital part of.

She ‘really needed’ to work

So vital, in fact, that a supervisor told Evans she “really needed” to keep working on the payroll system despite her leave request.

Evans said in a lawsuit that soon followed: After the discussion with her supervisor, Evans felt she had no choice but to work full time from home following the birth of her child.

So Evans, like a good soldier, kept plugging away with the payroll system installation.

But while juggling her work and parental duties, BAM felt her performance started to slip and she wasn’t doing an adequate job implementing the new system.

As a result, when she returned to the office, BAM denied her a performance bonus and reassigned her to a lesser position.

Evans then sued for FMLA interference.

BAM tried to get her suit thrown out by saying she suffered no “legal damages” because she never stopped being paid.

But, as anyone who knows the FMLA could’ve guessed, the court failed to bite on BAM’s argument. It said damages can extend far beyond pay, and a jury should hear Evans’ case.

Bottom line: If an employee qualifies for FMLA leave (as Evans did), the person must be allowed to take it without being asked to do more than a minimal amount of work and without negative employment repercussions – no matter how irreplaceable he or she is.

BAM now faces a significant, and potentially very expensive, uphill battle in court.

How much work is too much work?

BAM’s biggest mistake was obviously making Evans do a substantial amount of work while out on FMLA leave.

How much is too much to ask employees in Evans’ position to do?

A U.S. district court recently answered that question in a similar FMLA lawsuit involving Regency Hospital in Toledo, OH.

In the case, Regency was sued by a former employee who claimed the hospital interfered with her FMLA rights by asking her to work while on leave.

In it’s ruling, which didn’t favor Regency, the court outlined what employers can ask workers out on FMLA leave to do.

The list included:

  • passing along institutional knowledge to new staff
  • providing computer passwords
  • seeking closure on completed assignments, and
  • identifying employees to fill voids.

Asking anything else of workers on FMLA leave puts employers at significant legal risk.

Cite: Evans v. Books-A-Million

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