The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, "FMLA is designed to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons". A recent Connecticut case awarded $536,000 to an employee who sued his employer for violating the law. (Bissonnette v. Highland Park Market Inc.)
Jason Bissonnette started working as a deli clerk in May 1999 at Highland Park Market near Hartford Connecticut. While working there, he earned a degree from the University of Connecticut as a computer service technician. Soon afterwards, his company promoted him to information technology specialist. In fact, he was the sole employee in the IT department, and serviced computers at all the store locations, of which there were five all over the state.
As part of his job, Bissonnette was required to do some heavy lifting, primarily to replace servers and lift up computer stations in order to connect or disconnect wires. In November 2007 he hurt his back while performing his duties. He took no time off and continued to work until June 2009, when he had spinal fusion surgery. In January, he requested time off for recovery. HR told him that it did not believe the injury was job-related, but Bisonnette took an unpaid leave of absence for the surgery under the FMLA. He returned to work part time in September 2010, though part-time per his doctor's orders. He requested light-duty accommodations, but his employer refused. He was fired two weeks later. He sued.
The employer claimed that it was purely a financial decision, and hired a third party to do the job for less money. Actually, the employer was paying more money to the third party than it was to Bissonnette. The employer's employee file stated that the reason for the termination was "lack of work".
At trial, during cross examination, the company's owner admitted that Bissonnette would not have been terminated had he not gone on leave for back surgery. That pretty much sealed the deal for the jury, and they came back with an award for $103,000 for lost wages, which was later increased to $411,000 and $125,000 in attorney fees and costs. The employer is appealing.
The takeaway? If you are injured at work, under the FMLA, you are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and to keep your job. You are eligible for leave if you have worked for your employer at least 12 months, at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, and work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles. If you work in New York City, the law is much broader.
In the event you have been fired from your job due to taking leave because of an illness, give the lawyers at Schwartz and Perry LLP a call.