If you have workers out on leave for health reasons and you’re simultaneously considering cutting positions for economic reasons, it’s important to review your plans with an employment attorney. Depending on how you carry out the decisions you make, you could be leaving yourself vulnerable to legal claims.
That happened recently in Kansas when a warehouse worker who had been with his employer for nearly 20 years suffered a back injury on the job. He returned to work after a month, but then took leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act 20 months later. According to the employee, he wanted to file a worker’s compensation claim, but his employer discouraged him from doing so while promising to hold his job for him for an additional seven months.
A couple months after that, he returned with lifting restrictions, but his employer told him the warehouse team had been restructured and his position no longer existed. The employee proceeded to file a claim in U.S. District Court alleging disability discrimination and failure to accommodate.
The employer vigorously fought the allegations, insisting that it restructured the warehouse out of economic need. However, the company’s own policies called for a 12-month leave under the circumstances involving the employee, and the employee was able to obtain email and other evidence that his employer was irritated by his need for time off. In addition, his position was apparently the only one eliminated in the restructuring.
The facts were damaging enough for a jury to find in the employee’s favor and award a seven-figure verdict that included a substantial amount of punitive damages intended to punish the employer for egregious behavior and deter similar conduct going forward. The court also ordered the employer to pay the worker’s attorneys’ fees and costs.