Q: I took a one-month FMLA medical leave for surgery, but my employer laid me off two weeks into the leave. I have always heard that an employer cannot terminate an employee who is on a medical leave. Is this true?
A: It is a common misconception among employees that employers cannot terminate them if they are on a medical leave. While in practice most employer are reluctant to terminate an employee who is out on a medical leave, the law does not explicitly prohibit terminating such an employee.
The Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") and its California counterpart, the California Family Rights Act ("CFRA"), protect employees from being terminated because they take a medical leave. It does not totally prohibit termination of an employee while they are on a medical leave. The difference is subtle, but it is there.
For example, assume a salesperson is out on FMLA leave and his company lays off their entire 100-person sales force. The employer is not required to keep the salesperson on medical leave on their payroll and terminating the salesperson would not be an outright violation of the FMLA.
However, if the salesperson is the only one out of the 100 salespeople to be laid off and there is no other clear reason for the termination, it begins to look more like the employee is being laid off because they are on an FMLA leave.
So, in response to your question, what really matters is why you were terminated while out on a medical leave, not just that you happened to be out on a medical leave when you were terminated.