Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Resolve this year to properly handle no-fault attendance policies

For the uninitiated, a no-fault attendance policy terminates an employee who accumulates a pre-designated number of absences, regardless of the reason. For employers with high-volume, high-turnover operations, these policies make a lot of sense as the best tool to manage employee attendance. They are not, however, without their risk. For example, no-fault attendance policies cannot penalize absences that fall under the protective umbrella of statutes such as the FMLA or the ADA. As some employers have discovered, disciplining or firing disabled employees under a no-fault policy can be a costly error.

What about employees on leave for a workers’ comp injury? Can an employer count those absence under a no-fault policy? According to one recent Ohio appellate decision—Scalia v. Aldi, Inc. (12/21/11) [pdf]—the answer is a decided maybe. The court concluded that it is not per se retaliatory for an employer to terminate an employee on workers compensation leave pursuant to a facially neutral attendance policy. The court remanded the case back to the trial court to consider the issue of whether the employer—through the application of its attendance policy— terminated the plaintiff retaliation for instituting, pursuing, or testifying in a workers’ compensation proceeding.

What does this mean? This means that the plaintiff cannot rely solely on the attendance policy to prove retaliation, but must prove that the employer’s reliance on the attendance policy was a pretext for retaliation. A uniformly applied attendance policy will go a long way to disproving this pretext. As mentioned above, however, employers cannot apply attendance policies to penalize employees on leave for FMLA or ADA reasons. Will this lack of uniformity hurt employers in defending against workers’ comp retaliation cases? Or, can an employer lawfully treat FMLA-related and ADA-related absences differently than workers’ comp-related absences. Another court will have to answer these questions in another case. As this case illustrates, employers must tread very carefully when disciplining or terminating an employee who is absent from work because of work-related injury.