FMLA Interference vs. Retaliation: Recognizing Unlawful Employer Actions

By Douglas Lipsky

The Family and Medical Leave Act offers essential protections for employees needing time off for medical and family reasons. However, exercising your rights under this federal law is challenging in the face of unlawful employment actions like interference and retaliation. This blog aims to demystify these concepts, empowering employees to understand their rights and identify when they might be infringed upon in the workplace.

Understanding Family Leave Rights

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides eligible employees the right to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family and medical reasons, with the continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions. To be eligible for FMLA leave, employees must work for an employer with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius, have worked for that employer for at least 12 months, and have clocked at least 1,250 hours of service in the 12 months before the start of the leave.

Under the FMLA, employees are entitled to leave for:

  • Birth and care of a newborn
  • Bonding with a newly adopted child  
  • Care of a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition
  • The employee’s serious health condition 
  • Handling circumstances surrounding a family member’s military service

What is FMLA Interference?

FMLA interference occurs when an employer hinders or denies an employee’s right to family and medical leave rights. Examples of FMLA interference include:

  • Denying an eligible employee’s request for FMLA leave
  • Changing an employee’s position or duties because they requested or took FMLA leave
  • Imposing negative consequences or creating a hostile environment to dissuade employees from taking FMLA leave

Employees should be vigilant about such behaviors from employers as they undermine the legal protections afforded by the FMLA.

Recognizing FMLA Retaliation

FMLA retaliation refers to punitive actions taken by an employer against an employee for exercising their rights. Unlike interference, which directly prevents an employee from taking family and medical leave, retaliation is a response to an employee having used those rights. 

Examples of FMLA retaliation include:

  • Firing an employee for requesting or taking FMLA leave.
  • Reducing an employee’s job position or salary upon their return from FMLA leave.
  • Giving unjustly poor performance evaluations because an employee utilized FMLA leave.

Remember, the law is designed to protect you from such unfair treatment and to ensure you can exercise your FMLA rights without fear of reprisal.

Why This Matters

If you suspect your employer interfered with your FMLA rights or retaliated against you for requesting or taking family leave, take immediate and informed action. Document every relevant interaction and decision related to your FMLA request or leave, including dates, times, emails, and names of those involved. This documentation can serve as crucial evidence if you need to pursue a formal complaint or legal action.

The best way to protect your rights is to consult an employment lawyer who can provide valuable guidance. They can help you understand your rights, evaluate your situation, and determine the next steps, whether filing an administrative complaint or pursuing legal action in court. 
Ultimately, FMLA rights exist to support and empower you in balancing your work responsibilities with your health and family needs. If your employer unfairly denied you family medical leave, or you lost your job or benefits because you took family leave, talk to an experienced employment lawyer today.

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.