Am I eligible for a bonus while I'm on FMLA leave?

By , J.D., University of Missouri School of Law

Question: Am I eligible for a bonus while on FMLA leave or maternity leave?

My employer offers annual bonuses to employees who meet certain work goals. At the beginning of the year, each employee meets with the manager and sets goals to accomplish for the year. Any employee who meets his or her work goals is given a $5,000 bonus at the end of the year. I've been working for most of the year, but I went on FMLA leave in November. Bonuses are usually handed out in December. Can I still receive a bonus even though I'm on leave? What about if I eventually go on maternity leave?

Answer:

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an employee who takes leave is entitled to be reinstated to the same job or an equivalent one, with the same pay and benefits, upon returning to work. This means that you're entitled to any automatic raises or bonuses that are awarded while you're on FMLA leave. However, when a bonus is performance-based, the rules are a bit different.

Performance Bonus Entitlement While on FMLA

When a bonus is conditional upon meeting some type of goal, such as attendance or achieving a certain number in sales, and the employee doesn't meet the goal because he or she was on FMLA leave, the employer doesn't have to award the bonus.

There is one exception to this rule: If the employer awards bonuses to employees who don't meet the goal because they were on a different type of leave that is not FMLA-protected, the employer must award the bonus to employees on FMLA leave as well. In other words, employers must treat employees on FMLA leave the same as employees on other types of leave.

In your case, whether or not you're entitled to the bonus depends on whether you met your goals before you went on FMLA leave in November. For example, if your goal was to increase your sales by 10% and you achieved that goal before going on leave, you will qualify for the bonus. On the other hand, if you were able to achieve an increase of only 9% by the time you went on leave, you may not be entitled to the bonus. You'll be entitled to the bonus only if your employer is handing out bonuses to employees who are on other types of leave and didn't quite meet their goals.

Bonus Entitlement While on Maternity Leave

If your employer offers maternity leave, ask your human resources department how taking leave affects raises and bonuses, both discretionary and automatic. In general, employers are free to structure benefits such as maternity leave as they see fit, as long as their policies are not discriminatory.

Example. If your employer offers annual bonuses for high performers, it shouldn't deny you your entire bonus just because you took advantage of its six-week maternity leave policy. Instead, it should prorate the bonus based on how much time you took off⁠—or simply award your entire bonus.

A few states offer paid parental leave. In those states, the paid leave laws generally don't address whether a person who takes parental leave must receive an automatic raise or bonus. However, employers must apply their policies in a way that avoids unlawful sex-based or pregnancy-based discrimination. And employees might be protected by other laws, such as the federal FMLA or a state equivalent.

Contact an Attorney

If your employer has denied you an automatic raise or bonus while you've been on FMLA leave, consider contacting an employment attorney to discuss your legal options.

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