Hillsdale, IL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Due to his health issues, a meat plant worker faced challenges with his job when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the plant to impose a mask requirement and eventually led to the worker’s termination and raised FMLA questions.
In Soulemane v. Tyson Fresh Meats Inc., No. 4:21-cv-04066-SLD-JEH (C.D. Ill. 01/27/22), the court found that the worker’s medical treatment along with the plant’s approval of two periods of FMLA leave was enough to create an issue as to whether the plant interfered with the worker’s FMLA rights.
Mask Rule, FMLA Leave
The worker had a lung condition that affected his breathing, but under normal conditions, he could work without restrictions.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the plant implemented a mask requirement. When the rule went in place, the worker visited his doctor, who advised the worker that, due to his lung condition, wearing a mask would not be in his best interest.
After this appointment, the worker sought FMLA leave, and the plant, through a contractor it used to process FMLA requests, approved the worker for two periods of leave, extending over nearly a three-month period.
As his leave was nearing an end, the worker received a notice from human resources indicating that he needed to return to work. In response, the worker reminded a human resources employee that he had submitted an FMLA leave extension request.
Nonetheless, under the plant’s attendance system, the worker received points for five absences that resulted in a point total exceeding the plant’s termination threshold. As a result, the plant terminated the worker.
In response to his termination, the worker sued the plant under the FMLA, claiming that it interfered with his rights under the law.
‘Serious Health Condition’
To be entitled to FMLA leave, an employee must have a serious health condition that renders him unable to perform the functions of his job. Under 29 USC 2611(11), a “serious health condition” involves either inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility or continuing treatment by a health care provider.
The court found that the worker established his FMLA claim with facts to show that his physician was treating him for his breathing ailment.
“He indicate[d] the type of condition he has (lung); a symptom of that condition (affecting his breathing); and a relatively recent year of diagnosis (2017),” the court explained, which supported “an inference that [the worker] obtained examinations, evaluations, or other types of treatment at his appointments.”
Additionally, the court pointed out that the plant had already approved two FMLA requests from the worker, showing that the plant acknowledged that he had a serious health condition that was eligible for FMLA leave.
“If nothing else, the allegation that [the worker’s] requests were successful prompts the reasonable inference he qualified for benefits,” the court wrote.