With technology making work-from-home more and more feasible, it is easier and easier for employees to work while "out" on an FMLA or other leave. If an employee seeks FMLA leave, however, can an employer force an employee to work, even if the work is paid? According to Evans v Books-a-Million (11th Cir. 8/8/14) [pdf], the answer is no.
When Tondalaya Evans, a pregnant payroll manager for Books-a-Million, requested FMLA paperwork for her impending September 1 due date, her employer told her that she “would not go on leave but would work while on maternity leave.” She protested, but was told that she had no choice because the "go-live" date for the new payroll system on which she had been working had been delayed until November. Evans gave birth on August 30, and immediately starting working (full-time, and with full pay) upon arriving home from the hospital with her baby on September 1. When she eventually returned to the office, she was transferred to a new position. Unhappy with the transfer, Evans quit and sued, claiming, among other things, FMLA interference.
The court concluded that requiring an employee to work (even for pay) in lieu of requested FMLA leave for which the employee was entitle to take violates the FMLA. In doing so, it rejected the employer’s argument that it could not have violated the FMLA because it paid Evans for her time off.
It seems plain to us that if an employer coerces an employee to work during her intended FMLA leave period and, subsequently, reassigns her based upon her allegedly poor performance during that period, the employee may well have been harmed by the employer’s FMLA violation.
What lesson can employers learn from this case? Don’t suggest or require that an employee work during an FMLA-eligible leave (even if it’s paid). The purpose of the FMLA is to enable employees to take time off from work for certain qualifying medical and other reasons without from the encumbrance of work responsibilities and the fear of losing one’s job while away from work. Telling an employee that she cannot take an FMLA, but instead can (must?) work from home, undercuts both of these purposes. It both forbids an employee from taking time off, and puts the employee’s job at risk because of slipped performance as a result of divided attention. FMLA leave is federally guaranteed for a reason. Don’t mess with that reason by requiring work (albeit paid and at home) in lieu of bona fide leave of absence.