Employers gain victory in family leave case

High court strikes down Labor Dept. rule on giving workers notice

March 20, 2002|By BLOOMBERG NEWS

WASHINGTON - A divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down yesterday a federal rule that penalized employers for failing to inform workers of their rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The Labor Department rule was aimed at employers who don't tell workers on leave that the time will count against the 12 weeks of guaranteed leave under federal law. The rule gave those employees an additional 12 weeks off.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 court in a case from Arkansas, called that penalty "disproportionate and inconsistent with Congress' intent."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, in dissent, said one of the aims of the Labor Department rule was to ensure that employers give individualized notice to workers of their rights under the law.

The decision is a victory for employer groups, who argued at the nation's highest court that the Labor Department rule punished companies for providing benefits beyond those required by federal law. It was the court's first ruling to address the scope of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act.

"It's a highly significant case," said lawyer Ann Elizabeth Reesman, who filed a brief in the case for the Equal Employment Advisory Council, an employer trade group. "This regulation discouraged companies from providing more generous leave policies than the FMLA requires."

The law requires employers to give workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a one-year period to take care of a newborn child or sick relative or to deal with their own serious health condition.

Workers' advocates said the ruling leaves companies with little incentive to tell employees about those rights.

The case involved Tracy Ragsdale, an Arkansas woman who worked at a factory owned by Wolverine World Wide Inc., the maker of Hush Puppies and other shoe brands.

She took 30 weeks of leave to be treated for cancer, then sought more time off. When Wolverine refused, she didn't return to work and was fired.

She contended that she was entitled to an additional 12 weeks off because the company didn't designate the leave she took as an entitlement under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

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