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Supreme Court Decides


A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling makes a family-friendly law more boss-friendly.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court struck down a Department of Labor rule that afforded some protection of the time-off accrued by workers who exercise their rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

FMLA, adopted by Congress in 1993, provides for unpaid medical leave of up to 12 weeks a year for employees themselves or for care of immediate family members. The law allows bosses to apply vacation or sick days to leave. However, the Labor Dept. regulation held that an employee’s 12 weeks does not start to run until the employer notifies the employee that the time off will count as FMLA leave.


According to a majority of the Supreme Court, that rule unfairly "punished an employer’s failure to provide timely notice of the FMLA designation by denying it any credit for leave granted before the notice." In other words, the boss can decide what time-off is FMLA leave — at his, not the worker’s, convenience.

That kind of high-handed management decision is what harmed Tracy Ragsdale. The case decided by the Supreme Court on March 19 arose as a result of the unfair treatment she received from Wolverine Worldwide Inc.

Ragsdale was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1996. She underwent surgery and months of radiation treatment. Ragsdale benefited from seven months of unpaid sick leave provided under her union contract. Still not recovered enough to return to work full-time at the end of the seven months, she requested additional leave under FMLA.


You’ve already had your FMLA leave, Wolverine told her. You’re done. As in fired.

The company had never informed Ragsdale that management regarded her sick leave as FMLA leave. So the worker sued Wolverine, claiming that the seven months of leave should not be counted towards her FMLA allotment because the company failed to make the notification required by the Labor Dept. Ragsdale asked for reinstatement and back pay. Unfortunately for her (and other workers), the courts took the company line that the Labor Dept. regulation was invalid because it expanded the benefits of the law by requiring more than 12 weeks of leave.

The Supreme Court took the same position. The majority recognized that "an employer’s failure to comply with the designation requirement might sometimes burden an employee’s exercise of basic FMLA rights," but concluded: Tough luck.


Since the law’s enactment, UE has recommended that FMLA be used as the basis for negotiating better and additional benefits, including:

  • Elimination of the boss’s ability to automatically apply vacation or sick days to leave.

  • Extension of leave beyond 12 weeks for legitimate family or medical reasons including those not covered under FMLA, or right to borrow against future leave entitlement.

  • Establishment of paid leave and continuing accrual of seniority and all benefits for the length of the leave.

  • Guarantee return to old job upon completion of leave.

The limitations of the law have always required remedial action at the bargaining table. The anti-worker Supreme Court decision in Ragsdale v. Wolverine Worldwide Inc. makes strengthened family and medical leave provisions in union contracts all the more important.

UE News - 6/02

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