Last week, the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in a Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) case which involved claims against Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations. The court held that Bridgestone unlawfully interfered with the FMLA rights of Lucas Hernandez, a tire builder Bridgestone fired because of attendance.
While Hernandez worked for Bridgestone his son had asthma and he needed to intermittently take time off from work to care for his son. The FMLA requires employers to permit FMLA-eligible employees to take intermittent leave for qualifying reasons, such as to care for a son or daughter with a serious health condition. Bridgestone permitted Hernandez to take this intermittent FMLA leave but, according to the court, it did not provide him with all of the leave he was entitled to take.
Like many manufacturers, Bridgestone ran its tire building operations continuously. This continuous operation required many employees to routinely work overtime shifts. At the plant where Hernandez worked, Bridgestone put out overtime sign-up sheets where workers could express interest in overtime work. Bridgestone then took the information from the sign-up sheets and posted another sheet indicating who was selected for overtime and when they had to work. The court found that once Bridgestone selected an employee for overtime and put their name on the sheet, that overtime shift was mandatory. Characterizing the overtime shift as mandatory had implications for calculating Hernandez’s FMLA leave entitlement.
The FMLA requires employers to provide FMLA-eligible employees with 12 weeks of FMLA leave per year; but sometimes the length of a “week” is unclear because, for example, the employee works overtime some weeks but not every week. When an employee works voluntary overtime, as opposed to mandatory overtime, an employer does not have to factor the overtime in when determining how many hours of FMLA leave the employee is entitled to receive. For example, if an employee works 40 hours per week but sometimes volunteers to stay late to cover for a sick co-worker, the employer may use only the 40 hours to calculate the 12 week leave entitlement (40 x 12 = 480 hours of FMLA leave available). When overtime is mandatory, however—meaning that it is part of the employee’s normal work week—the employer must factor that mandatory overtime into its calculation of the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement. One way to do this calculation is to calculate the average number of hours per week that the employee worked in the 12 months prior to their need for FMLA leave. If with mandatory overtime an employee worked, on average, 45 hours per week, his 12 week FMLA leave entitlement would be 540 hours (45 x 12 = 540).
Bridgestone failed to factor Hernandez’s mandatory overtime hours in when it calculated how much FMLA leave he was entitled to take. Thus, when it fired him for exceeding his FMLA leave entitlement, it interfered with his rights under the FMLA. Hernandez’s case went to trial before the appeal to the Eighth Circuit and the jury awarded him $75,681 in damages. Bridgestone was also required to pay Hernandez’s attorneys’ fees, the amount of which was also appealed to the Eighth Circuit.
The Maine Employee Rights Group have successfully represented many Mainers in FMLA cases. If your employer has fired you, or is threatening to fire you, because you have needed to take time off from work for a FMLA-qualifying reason, contact us to learn more about your rights.