Can my employer pressure me to return to work during my FMLA leave?

Question: I had back surgery a few weeks ago. My doctor told me I would be out of work completely for six weeks, then would have to work half-time for another four weeks. After that, I should be able to return to work full time, without any restrictions. I told my manager and my HR representative what the doctor said. I also completed all of my FMLA requests and paperwork with this information. And, my doctor filled out the company's medical certification form giving the same restrictions and return to work dates. But my manager keeps calling me. At first, she just had a couple of questions about my work. But now, she is saying that my department is struggling to meet its deadlines without me. Last time she called, she asked whether I could come back sooner than planned, and for more hours. Is it legal for her to pressure me like this?

Answer: The short answer is no. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives employers some leeway to check in with employees who are on leave, but it doesn't allow them to pressure employees or try to talk them out of exercising their rights.

Some employees are surprised to learn that employers have the right to contact them during leave at all. Employees who, like you, submitted detailed paperwork and intend to return to work according to their carefully laid medical plans might wonder why an employer needs any additional information. For an employee who is friendly with coworkers and managers, it might be nice to hear from those at work occasionally. For some employees, however, this checking in can quickly start to feel like an intrusion on what should be a relaxing convalescence.

But of course, not all surgeries and recoveries go according to plan. That's why the FMLA allows employers to check in with employees on FMLA leave periodically, to find out their status and their plans for returning to work. However, these requests for status reports must be reasonable, considering all of the facts (including the employee's condition). Checking in too often or asking for too much detail could cross the line into coercion.

The FMLA doesn't provide detailed rules about how often employers may request these status reports. Generally, it depends on the employee's situation. For an employee like you, who has a detailed medical prognosis and return to work plan, monthly check-ins might be appropriate, just to make sure everything is proceeding as it should. An employee whose situation is more fluid and unpredictable might expect more frequent contact from work. If, for example, an employee was in a serious car accident, the employee's restrictions and plans for returning to work might be changing from day to day. In this case, an employer could reasonably check in more often, to stay in the loop about the employee's time off.

No matter where you fall on this spectrum, however, employers are allowed only to check in regarding your status and plans for returning to work. They are not allowed to pressure employees, suggest they return to work early, make veiled threats about the employee's right to return to work ("I'm not sure if we'll be able to keep your job open if you can't return sooner,"), or otherwise interfere with the employee's FMLA leave. It sounds like your manager is well across this line.

The next time your manager contacts you, explain that your plans are laid out in your FMLA paperwork and that you will contact your manager if anything changes. Ask your manager to stop contacting you so frequently. If necessary, point out that the company's legal rights to request information from you are limited. If your manager persists in the face of your explanations, contact your HR department right away.

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