A recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lawsuit highlights the dangers of fixed leave policies.
Princeton HealthCare System, which operates several medical facilities, will pay $1.35M to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit stemming from a fixed leave policy and leave tracking system it had in place.
According to the EEOC, Princeton’s leave tracking system only took into account the requirements of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when it came to handling employees’ medical leaves.
This resulted in two actions, which spurred the EEOC’s suit:
- terminating employees who weren’t yet eligible for FMLA after a few absences, and
- automatically terminating employees once they’d been out on FMLA leave for more than 12 weeks.
According to the EEOC, such actions robbed employees of rights they may have been entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
It says hard-line fixed leave policies slam the door on the chance for employees to receive reasonable accommodations under the ADA that may allow them to return to performing the essential functions of their jobs — and reasonable accommodations can include medical leave given in addition to FMLA leave.
The EEOC sued Princeton, claiming it failed to at least seek out reasonable accommodations for employees who were absent for medical-related reasons.
As part of the settlement agreement, Princeton has also agreed to:
- no longer require employees returning from disability leave to present a fitness-for-duty certification stating they are able to return to work without any restrictions (because that too slams the door on the possibility of some employees receiving reasonable accommodations that may allow them to return to their jobs)
- not subject employees to progressive discipline for ADA-related absences, and
- provide ADA training to its workforce.
The $1.35M will be distributed to those unlawfully terminated under Princeton’s former fixed leave policy.
The EEOC also said in the future Princeton must engage in the interactive process with ADA-covered employees, including employees with a disability related to pregnancy, when deciding how much medical-related leave is needed.
Always enter the interactive process
While it appears the EEOC is taking a hard-line stand against fixed leave policies here, what it’s really trying to do is make employers aware of their responsibilities to enter the interactive process whenever a medical condition interferes with an employee’s ability to perform his or her job.
When such conditions are in play, even if an employee has already been granted a full 12 weeks of FMLA leave, employers must enter the interactive process to see if a reasonable accommodation exists that would allow affected employees to return to work.
Companies can have policies that impose caps on how long workers can be on leave. But they must be flexible enough to allow room for reasonable accommodations — including more leave — that help employees return to work.
How much medical leave is too much? In a recent landmark decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, it was ruled anything beyond six months is generally not reasonable.