This article is the first in a three-part series about FMLA and the workplace: Part I | Part II | Part III

Jodi Lasher, a nurse, was terminated after she failed to notify anyone that she needed to take measures to address her approved Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) accommodation for her persistent migraines. In short, she fell asleep in an unused patient room and subsequently neglected her duties to monitor fetal heart rates in the labor and delivery department in which she worked.

This case provides many interesting legal talking points and illustrates a number of HR and management challenges. We will explore a few of them in this article series.

Reading between the lines

As many managers know, it is not that easy to fire someone. In the best cases, the only things you can control are the physical and emotional stressors you have to go through to the make the decision. At worst, there are complicated laws and regulations surrounding the situation, through which you have to tread carefully. Firing someone with accommodations and approved intermittent FMLA falls into the latter category.

In addition to the technical requirements surrounding such a termination, there are two other factors that often — though are not supposed to impact the situation. The first is the type of workplace and the second is the reason for the accommodation.

In the case of Lasher, put crudely, she was a nurse in charge of the health and care of pregnant moms and their about-to-be-born babies. If you had to make an argument that someone neglected clearly spelled out duties, her duties are ones that most people would agree are extremely important.

However, not all of us work in positions that can so directly affect the life and well-being of another. Contrast Lasher with someone who works in a retail catalog call center. Is leaving your phone a major infraction clearly spelled out in the company policies? Who is going to get upset about it? And really, compared to pregnant moms needing help, how dire are the consequences?

Supervisors and co-workers picking up the calls the missing employee is not taking will surely notice and feel the brunt of the challenge. The effect on their day could be significant. And that leads to the second issue often surrounding difficult to terminate intermittent FMLA cases: the reason for the accommodation.

Lasher had severe migraines. While many people can relate to headaches, not as many truly understand the debilitating nature of serious migraines. In such situations, co-workers (who unfortunately often know the details of confidential leave situations) wonder about the legitimacy of the ailment and often harbor resentment against the employee.

This tension is frequently raised to the supervisor, who rightfully does not discuss the details but does defend the situation and the employee. It becomes tricky. And if the manager wants to discipline the employee, even for legitimate reasons, it is hard for the manager to avoid looking like he/she is retaliating against an employee on a protected leave with approved accommodations.

What to do?

Whether you work in a call center or a nuclear storage facility, all documentation regarding accommodations and leaves must be pristine. Managers and employees must be trained in the basics of leave, and in particular should be clear on the positive reasons such leaves exist.

Further, everyone should be made aware that a leave or accommodation is for a specific reason and a specific duration. It is not a blank check that gives any employee the right to circumvent policies. Accommodations are granted if the business can reasonably handle it, and that determination is made with an interactive dialogue, expert medical information and a clear understanding of what the employee needs to do as an active participant in the accommodation.

If handled properly, accommodations can help everyone through a difficult situation.

Learn more about communication challenges surrounding FMLA in our next article.