Foster Farms wins ruling on Turlock employee’s absence

jnsbranti@modbee.comFebruary 27, 2014 

Foster Farms’ lawyers convinced a federal jury in 2011 and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco this week that the company properly followed union-negotiated contract rules in firing a Turlock employee when she didn’t return to work as planned.

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— A fired worker from Turlock’s Foster Poultry Farms turkey processing plant lost her bid to be rehired this week when a federal appellate court sided with her bosses.

Maria Escriba was terminated from her job as a line worker in 2007 after she traveled to Guatemala to care for her ailing father and didn’t return on schedule.

She had initially told Foster Farms she was taking a two-week vacation, but she was gone a month without contacting the company.

Escriba’s lawyers had argued their Spanish-speaking client’s job should have been protected under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

They contended the Livingston-based company knew Escriba needed time off work to help her ailing parent, so giving her a medical leave should have been automatic.

The legal dispute was over how and when she told her English-speaking boss she was taking vacation time to care for her ill father and whether she had properly asked for a medical leave.

Foster Farms’ lawyers convinced a federal jury in 2011 and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco this week that Escriba had requested only a paid vacation, not an unpaid medical leave.

They contended the company followed union-negotiated contract rules in firing Escriba when she didn’t return as planned.

Escriba had worked at the turkey processing plant for 18 years before the termination. Her husband also worked there.

During those years, she had taken 15 medical leaves, according to Foster Farms attorney Carmine Zarlenga. He said Escriba knew how to request a medical leave, but she instead chose to take a paid vacation.

Zarlenga said the union contract required Escriba to report back to work within three days of the end of her vacation. But he said she didn’t call in to explain why she wouldn’t be back on time or have her husband tell their company what was happening.

Foster Farms has a “three-day no-show, no-call rule,” under which an employee is automatically terminated if he or she is absent for three workdays without notifying the company or without seeking a leave of absence.

The Modesto Bee tried to reach Escriba for this story, but her attorneys said she did not want to talk to the press.

The Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center represented Escriba in the case, which took six years to work through the legal system.

Zarlenga said Foster Farms spent “well over $100,000” in legal fees defending its actions in the case. The judges’ ruling on the case decided Escriba will not have to cover the company’s costs or even the court costs.

“The public interest group that took up this case was trying to make new law, but it failed,” Zarlenga said about Escriba’s attorneys. “They wanted a very rigid approach (to determining what qualifies as a federally protected medical leave) that does not square up with common sense.”

In siding with Foster Farms, Zarlenga said the 9th Circuit Court held that federal regulations do not require an employer to force an employee who would prefer to take a paid vacation to take a medical leave instead.

The Legal Aid Society–Employment Law Center, however, sees part of this week’s ruling as a victory.

“While we are disappointed in the court’s ruling on the FMLA issue, we are pleased the court rejected the attempt by Foster Farms, a multibillion-dollar company, to recover thousands of dollars in costs from an indigent client,” the Legal Aid Society lawyers said in an emailed statement to The Bee. “The court affirmed this was a close case involving an important legal question, and that the imposition of costs on a low-wage worker like Ms. Escriba could chill enforcement of civil rights laws.”

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or (209) 578-2196.

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