Kellie G. Olah
SPHR, CVPM, SHRM-SCP
HR Huddle columnist Kellie Olah is the practice management and human resources consultant at Veterinary Business Advisors. The company provides legal, human resources and practice management services to veterinarians nationwide. Olah is a certified veterinary practice manager, a certified veterinary business leader and a nationally certified senior professional in human resources.Read Articles Written by Kellie G. Olah
It’s probably engrained in you as a veterinary practice owner or manager that you can’t fire people after they take a medical leave. However, the reality is more nuanced, with courts supporting such terminations under certain circumstances. What type of situations qualify? Well, picture the following case.
You have a full-time, tenured veterinary technician we’ll call Lia. She’s worked at your practice for five years, but her performance has been poor. She doesn’t arrive at work on time, she’s snippy with coworkers, and, overall, she doesn’t act like a team player. When other employees clean up at the end of the evening, she always has a reason why she can’t stay to help.
Then, let’s say things plunge from bad to worse. Lead technician Sam had a request for Lia. Instead of complying or asking about it, Lia snapped at Sam and walked away. So, Sam went to the practice manager and shared what had happened. The practice manager, aware of the multiple warnings given to Lia, including a “final” one, reviewed her file. The manager confirmed that practice leaders had followed the proper procedures. They needed to fire Lia.
The next morning, however, Lia, who wasn’t yet aware of the termination decision, informed the practice manager that an accident had left her hospitalized. As a result, she wanted to take the medical leave that the employee manual offered. Lia qualified for the leave, and the practice manager approved it, but before Lia could return to work, she was fired for the reasons stated in her employee file, effective at the end of the leave.
Grounds for Dismissal
Was the firing appropriate? The short answer is yes. In this situation, the practice took the proper steps to terminate Lia. It’s also true that the employee manual provided up to six weeks of medical leave in some instances and that Lia’s accident qualified. The practice followed all relevant processes and procedures.
In another case, a trial court and an appellate court concluded that an employer’s similar actions were acceptable. First, the business didn’t fire the worker because of the medical leave to which the person was entitled. Second, the worker would have lost the position regardless of the leave.
In other words, the two events — the employer choosing termination and the worker requesting a medical leave — were closely related timewise, but evidence directly connecting the two was lacking.
All of this raises another question. Because the practice manager knew of the plans to fire Lia, could the clinic have simply denied her medical leave? A court didn’t hear Lia’s case, so how it would have ruled isn’t certain. More case law is needed.
We know this: Granting medical leave made the practice’s actions more defensible in court.
Takeaways for Managers
The practice manager kept accurate human resource records proving Lia’s pattern of being disrespectful and showing a final warning had been issued. So, when Sam shared what happened between the two of them, the practice manager had a solid foundation on which to terminate her.
In addition, the employee manual spelled out the practice’s medical leave policies, so the practice manager knew what Lia was entitled to. By granting the leave before the impending termination, the practice could justify the manager’s action, if needed, in court.
In sum, the practice manager demonstrated how the firing wasn’t connected to the accident and subsequent leave. If such a situation happens at your practice, asking an attorney to review the facts can further protect your business.
Let’s not focus here on the federal Family and Medical Leave Act or on providing ongoing accommodations to an employee with disabilities. Instead, let’s talk briefly about employees needing a medical leave because of a significant illness or surgery.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide “accommodations” to help workers with disabilities do their jobs, but not to the degree that the accommodations place an undue burden on the company. As of July 1994, companies with 15 or more employees must follow ADA guidelines. Employers may craft policies that offer more than what the ADA requires.
Deciding what your veterinary practice provides in medical leave and other accommodations can be complex, so involving an attorney makes sense.