Today, let's look at an all-too-common scenario involving how employers treat employees' caregiving responsibilities. Read the facts and consider whether our employee, Gabriela, has any legal claims based on her employer's actions.
Gabriela has worked as a receptionist at a large company for the past five years. She has two sons, ages 15 and 13. She never had any problems at the company until she got a new manager, Marcy. Marcy believed that she had been hired to "whip this place into shape." She made it known that she planned to "crack down" on "excessive leave." Marcy made good on her promise, giving everyone a hard time about taking days off. She even commented when she believed an employee was taking "excessive trips to the ladies' room."
At the beginning of the school year, Gabriela's oldest son was injured in a sporting accident. He was taken to the emergency room and told that he had torn a ligament and would need surgery in the coming weeks. In the meantime, he could wear a knee brace.
The next day, Gabriela returned to work with medical documentation of her son's injury. She told Marcy that she would like to take that Thursday and Friday off to help care for her son after his surgery. Marcy said that it would be difficult to find someone to cover the shift and asked whether the surgery could be rescheduled. Shocked, but afraid to lose her job, Gabriela rescheduled the surgery for the following week.
The following week came, and Gabriela came back to work with her sons in the car. She went in to talk to Marcy about who would cover her shift while she was out on FMLA leave. Marcy rolled her eyes and asked, "Do you really need to take this time off? It seems like you've been out a lot." Gabriela had not been out a lot--hardly at all. She explained to Marcy that, following her son's surgery, he would not even be able to get out of the bed to use the bathroom without help. Marcy laughed and said, "Just teach him to pee in a bottle!" Gabriela began to cry. Co-workers began to notice, so Marcy ushered her out of the building. While Gabriela stood crying in front of her car, Marcy tried to calm her down. She asked to be introduced to her sons. Gabriela complied. The oldest son asked why his mom was crying and Marcy, as if it were a joke, said, "I told her that you could just pee in a bottle."
Gabriela took two days off as scheduled. When it became clear that her son would take more time than expected to heal, she wanted to ask for more time off, as she still had plenty of FMLA leave. But given her last attempt to get time off, she decided not to. Plus, the leave was unpaid and, as a single mother, she could not afford it. She went back to work, leaving her son to be cared for by his grandmother in the morning and her 13-year-old son when he got home from school.
When she returned to work, her relationship with Marcy was strained. Marcy barely spoke to Gabriela and openly excluded Gabriela from lunch invitations with co-workers. Three weeks after returning to work, Marcy wrote her up for an incident that occurred two months before Gabriela took FMLA leave. It involved an upset customer who had complained about something. When the incident occurred, Marcy confronted Gabriela about it. Gabriela tried to explain, but Marcy cut her short and said, "I don't want to hear it." Now, months later, the regional manager came through the office and asked to meet with Gabriela. The only private place to meet was the lunchroom. There, the regional manager asked Gabriela for her version of events. He told her to wait there while he went to "check out her story." An hour later, he came back and told Gabriela to turn in her key card and to collect her things. She was being fired. Incredulous, Gabriela asked why. The regional manager told her, "Because you lied to Marcy about what happened."
Gabriela found herself without a job in the worst economic downturn in a generation. She found part-time work in a restaurant, but it was not nearly enough to pay her mortgage. Gabriela made it as long as she could on credit cards, but she ultimately fell behind on her mortgage and lost her house.
Can Gabriela do anything about this? If so, what? What would be the potential value of any lawsuit?
You'll find out the answers to these questions in our next blog.