Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The FMLA has eligibility limits (unless you tell your employees otherwise)

The FMLA does not provide leave benefits to all employees of all employers. First and foremost, it only covers employers with 50 or more employees. And, only a subset of employees of a covered employer is eligible for FMLA leave.

An employee is eligible for FMLA leave from a covered employer if the employee—
  1. was employed by the employer for at least 12 non-consecutive months;
  2. worked 1,250 hours during the 12-month period preceding the start of the requested leave; and
  3. works at a location where the employer employs 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.
Employees who fails to meet any one of these criteria are not eligible for FMLA leave … unless the employer tells them otherwise.

In Tilley v. Kalamazoo County Road Commission (6th Cir. 1/26/15) [pdf], the employer maintained the following FMLA policy:
Employees covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act are full-time employees who have worked for the Road Commission and accumulated 1,250 work hours in the previous 12 months.
The employer, however, denied Tilley’s request for FMLA leave because he did not work at a location that employed 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius. Based on the employer’s unambiguous policy, however, the court concluded that the employer waived any ability to rely upon the 50-employee threshold.
This is an unambiguous and unqualified statement that Road Commission employees, like Tilley, who have logged 1,250 hours in the year before seeking FMLA leave are covered by the FMLA and are eligible to apply for FMLA benefits…. 
The Road Commission could have qualified its statement concerning employee eligibility by adding that its full-time employees would only be covered by the FMLA if they worked at, or within 75 miles of, a site at which the Road Commission employed at least 50 employees. That is precisely what other employers have done…. 
And we are unwilling to conclude as a matter of law that Tilley was unreasonable in relying on the Manual’s statement that employees in his position were eligible to apply for FMLA benefits. Simply put, a reasonable person in Tilley’s position could fairly have believed that he was protected by the FMLA.
Bottom line? Courts will hold you to your word if you mis-represent FMLA eligibility to an otherwise ineligible employee. If you, as an employer, do not want to go beyond the FMLA’s baseline requirements, you need to check, and then double-check, your leave policies, to make sure you are not promising your way into more coverage than intended.