Human Resources News & Insights

Was trip to the tropics proper use of FMLA leave?

An employee is fired after her company learns she spent her medical leave in a tropical vacation spot. She sues, claiming her employer violated FMLA. Did she win?

Read the dramatized version of this real-life case and see if you can determine the outcome.

The scene

HR manager Heather Bialecki looked up as employee Mary Flounders walked into her office.

“Morning, Mary,” said Heather. “Have a seat. I wanted to talk to you about the FMLA leave you just took.

“Your supervisor says you showed her photos of a trip you took to Cancun last week before you returned to work.”

“Yes,” said Mary. “It was beautiful there. Why do you ask?”

“Well, I believe you abused company policy by misrepresenting your leave,” said Heather. “Our policy requires workers on sick leave to stay in the vicinity of their homes.”

“The only exceptions are for medical treatments or activities directly related to personal or family needs,” she continued.

“Right – the trip was to help me recover from surgery,” said Mary.

“OK, but you didn’t get written permission from us, per company policy,” said Heather.

“I had no idea I had to,” said Mary.

“It’s company policy spelled out in our handbook, which you’ve received and read according to the signed form in your personnel file. We have no choice but to fire you.”

“That policy is absurd,” said Mary. “You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”

Mary sued Heather’s company for violating her FMLA rights. Did the company win?


The decision

Yes, the company won.

Mary claimed she wasn’t aware workers on sick leave had to stay near home or get written permission to travel.

She also argued the trip to Cancun was to help her recover from her recent surgery. And since she was fired for taking a trip to help her get well, she said it was a violation of her FMLA rights.

But the employer presented a copy of the employee handbook outlining Mary’s responsibility to get permission to the court, as well as a document signed by the employee stating she received and read the handbook. Based on that documentation, the judge found the employer was justified in firing her.

Analysis: You’ve got rights, too

This case is proof positive that employers have rights to enact policies to prevent sick leave and FMLA abuse.

But those policies have to be documented in employee handbooks and communicated to staff. Make sure:

  • there’s no language that could be construed as a violation of employees’ FMLA rights
  • employees are required to sign a statement to show they read the policy, and
  • the policy is enforced consistently across the company.

Cite: Pellegrino v. Communications Workers of America


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