Why it may make sense to force employees to use FMLA leave

FMLA leave and vacation time collide in this bizarre case involving poultry, Guatemala and a massive miscommunication.

Maria Escriba, a former employee at a poultry farm, was familiar with taking FMLA leave — she’d requested leave on several occasions from the company’s HR department.
In 2007, Escriba requested more leave, this time to help her ill father in Guatemala. During her first meeting with her supervisor, Escriba asked to use vacation time for her trip rather than FMLA leave.
Despite an English-language barrier, Escriba confirmed with two other supervisors (in English and Spanish) that she wanted to use vacation time and not FMLA leave — and was told more than once that if she wanted further time off she’d have to arrange something with the HR department.
Allegedly, during one or two of these meetings, Escriba asked for “one week or two weeks free.” Supposedly, she meant in addition to vacation time, but Escriba never approached HR about that request despite her supervisors’ advice.
Escriba left for Guatemala — and never contacted her company again until 16 days after she’d said she would be back, at which point she’d been terminated, per the company’s three day no-call, no-show rule.

Egg-actly what she wanted?

After she was fired, Escriba filed a lawsuit claiming FMLA interference, saying that informing her supervisors about her father’s illness should have triggered FMLA protection.
Both a jury and an appeals court sided with her company instead.
The essential question at stake was whether an employee could choose not to use FMLA leave. The court felt Escriba, having used FMLA leave before, made clear choices that highlighted her intention not to use it in this circumstance.
However, employers who want to play it safe and stay out of court might not want to put a lot of weight on this ruling. FMLA guidelines emphasize the employer’s role in deciding when an absence should be counted under FMLA leave — not the employee’s wishes. And there are plenty of good reasons for employers to designate abscences like Escriba’s as FMLA.
For one, it’s easier for administrators to track, rather than juggle different types of leave for one prolonged absence and possibly give a worker more time off than they’re legally entitled to. It also preserves the employee’s job and cuts down on attendance-based terminations.
If employees complain that you’re using up their FMLA against their wishes, remind them that you’re only following the law and that using FMLA time helps them in the long run since it ensures their jobs will be safe while they’re away. They may be upset for a little while, but you’ll avoid a lawsuit like Escriba’s.
The case is Escriba v. Foster Poultry Farms (h/t FMLA Insights blog)