Terminating Employees on Extended Leaves of Absence
HOW LONG CAN AN EMPLOYEE BE OUT OF WORK ON MEDICAL LEAVE BEFORE THE EMPLOYER CAN JUSTIFIABLY TERMINATE THE EMPLOYEE WITHOUT VIOLATING THE LAW?
While no case has established a bright line rule that employers can follow when answering this question, Williams v. Genentech, Inc., provides very useful guidance. Rochelle Williams was a receptionist at Genentech who, after being criticized by her supervisors for mishandling a security incident, suffered stress and an exacerbation of an existing medication condition. Ms. Williams began a medical leave that lasted seven months. Genentech filled Ms. Williams’ position during the leave and when Ms. Williams could not locate another position at Genentech, she was terminated. The court found that Genentech did not violate the anti-discrimination statutes and that Ms. Williams could not prove that Genentech failed to accommodate her disability.
Williams v. Genentech reveals important guidelines for employers dealing with employees on a medical leave of absence:
- Reasonable accommodation does not require the employer to wait indefinitely for an employee’s medical condition to be corrected.
- Maintain and follow established policies regarding medical leaves of absence.
- Ensure policies provide that employees placed on FMLA/CFRA leave are guaranteed their position if the medical leave does not exceed 12 weeks and that if an employee requires a longer leave, the employee’s position is not guaranteed.
- If necessary, be able to demonstrate that keeping the employee’s position open for extended periods creates an undue hardship.
- If it is an undue hardship to keep an employee’s position available for more than 12 weeks, and if the employee’s position has been filled, attempt to find an alternative position for an employee upon his/her return from medical leave.
- Keep track of all correspondence regarding the expected return date. In Williams, numerous dates had been set for the plaintiff’s return to work, but they were all extended by the plaintiff’s doctor until she was finally able to return to work seven months later. This made it difficult for Genentech to determine whether the plaintiff would actually return to work.
- Continue to engage in the interactive process of determining what, if any, reasonable accommodation would enable the plaintiff to return to work.
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