The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal employment law that provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for certain family and medical reasons. The federal FMLA only covers employees who have worked at least 12 months (and at least 1,250 hours), and who work for employers who have at least 50 employees within a 75 mile radius of the employee’s worksite. Some states and the District of Columbia have “mini FMLA” laws that cover smaller employers.
While FMLA ensures employees can take time off for important matters such as caring for a newborn or dealing with a serious health condition, questions often arise about what happens upon their return to work. One common concern is whether an employer can demote or assign a different job to an employee returning from FMLA leave.
Employers have some discretion in making employment decisions after an employee returns from FMLA leave, but they must adhere to certain guidelines. Employers must not target or retaliate against employees specifically because they took FMLA leave, as this would violate the law. Employers may proceed within legal bounds if there are legitimate business reasons for reassignment or demotion unrelated to the FMLA leave.
Employee rights post-FMLA
Despite the employer’s discretion, employees returning from FMLA leave have rights. Employers must communicate any changes in job responsibilities or demotions clearly and provide valid reasons for such decisions. If the employer’s actions seem retaliatory or discriminatory against the employee for taking FMLA leave, they may be in violation of the law. In FY2023, the Department of Labor took compliance actions against 79 employers for failing to reinstate an employee with the same or comparable job and benefits.
Returning from FMLA leave to find a demotion or a different job can be disheartening and may feel unfair. Employees have rights under FMLA. Employees can take steps to assert their rights if an employer’s actions seem unjust or discriminatory, and should consider consulting with an attorney.