Employees taking FMLA leave can’t be forced to work, even if they’re paid for it

A federal appeals court, in Evans v. Books-A-Million, recently emphasized what should have been an undisputed legal truth: an employer cannot force a worker to engage in work duties while on protected family or medical leave, even though it may still provide a paycheck.

The case began after an employee named Tondalaya Evans requested time off to care for her newborn child. Because the employer had a new payroll system set to launch during Evans’s leave time, it decided that she had to continue working from home. Within a day of returning home from the hospital after giving birth, Evans was already engaging in work-related phone calls. She frequently worked eight hours a day just to help the company meet its launch deadline. And despite this, she still ended up being fired after she refused to accept transfer to a new position once she returned to the workplace.

Under both the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and the Oregon Family Leave Act (“OFLA”), an eligible employee working for a covered employer is entitled to take 12 weeks away from work to care for a newborn child, among other reasons. An employer doesn’t have to pay you if you take this leave–which means that for some employees, it can be economically difficult or impossible to take all the time the law guarantees. Still, once you’ve properly followed the procedures to request the leave, the employer must grant it.

Unfortunately for Evans, a federal trial court found for her employer, Books-A-Million, at summary judgment. The court recognized that the company had made her work during her leave time, but concluded that she hadn’t suffered any real harm because Books-A-Million had still paid her.

This absurd conclusion, if allowed to stand, would eviscerate the protections of family and medical leave laws. Saying to an employee “no you can’t take leave; instead we’ll just pay you to keep working” sums up the exact arrangement that exists without any leave guarantee at all. It’s already unlawful not to pay an employee wages he or she has earned. Any company that wanted to avoid FMLA or OFLA could just offer to keep paying a worker in exchange for denying the worker’s rights. Luckily, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recognized this faulty reasoning for what it was, and reversed the trial court’s ruling.

Navigating the many requirements of FMLA and OFLA is difficult for most employees, which is why it can be helpful to have an employment discrimination attorney, especially if an employer is punishing you after taking protected leave. But it’s nice to know that in such a clear case of wrongdoing, a company can’t get away based on the sham defense that it paid its employee while violating her other workplace rights.