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The Importance of Handbooks: Employer Almost Binds Itself to Offering FMLA to Employee

May 20, 2022

By Robert G. Brody and Luis A. Torres

One employer almost learned the hard way that employee handbooks can inadvertently bind them to provide leave under the FMLA and other benefits.  In Jones v. Wireless Time of Alabama, the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Alabama ruled an employer’s handbook did not bind them to offering FMLA to employees because the handbook only said that the employee “may” be entitled to FMLA leave. That’s right, one word saved the employer.

In this case, a pregnant employee was granted several weeks of sick leave before and after her delivery. The employer willingly gave the employee the unpaid sick leave. When the employee returned, she was demoted to a lesser position. The employee asserted the employer violated her FMLA rights, which were described in the employee handbook. The employer claimed it was not bound by FMLA since it did not employ the required 50 employees.  However, the court opined that employer can willingly opt into the FMLA by declaring they are covered by the law.

This court found the employer made no representations to the employee that they had FMLA rights. In addition, the handbook did not promise FMLA rights, but merely observed the employee “may” have such rights.

Employers should be careful to not unintentionally bind themselves to laws that they are not legally required to offer. Employers should carefully analyze benefits packages, employee handbooks, and any oral representation to employees to confirm intentionality when it comes to benefits coverage.

Brody and Associates regularly advises businesses on handbooks and complying with the latest local, state and federal employment laws.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.454.0560