Do You Need to Step Away From Your Job?

Employment Matters column,

Although work is one of the most important things we do in our daily lives, there are times when we need to step away from it. Vacations are an obvious example, but there also times – say, for medical reasons – when we cannot work. Recovering from an injury or illness, caring for a newborn baby, or assisting a family member during a medical crisis – dealing with any of these can require weeks or months.

Coping with the loss of income is stressful enough all by itself – imagine worrying about losing your job, too. Before 1993, that was a real possibility. President Bill Clinton signed a new law that year called the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The most important part of the law is that it provides workers the option of taking up to 12 weeks unpaid leave off from work each year.

After taking medical leave, employers are required to let workers return to their jobs, or to a similar job with the same pay, responsibilities and benefits. The law also prohibits retaliation against workers who take advantage of the FMLA.

Before the FMLA, there was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which sought to assure that mothers would have a job waiting for them after childbirth, recovery and bonding time.

Critics pointed out that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act benefited only female workers, and argued it would lead to subtle workplace discrimination against women. In response to that concern, the FMLA clearly states that spouses can also take leave for medical events when their assistance as caregivers is needed. This makes the FMLA gender neutral.

The FMLA can be used:

  • for the birth and care of the newborn child of the employee;
    for placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care;
  • to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
  • to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
  • Beginning January 16, 2009, military families will also enjoy protection under the FMLA:

(1) Up to 12 weeks of leave for certain qualifying exigencies arising out of a covered military member’s active duty status, or notification of an impending call or order to active duty status, in support of a contingency operation, and

(2) Up to 26 weeks of leave in a single 12-month period to care for a covered servicemember recovering from a serious injury or illness incurred in the line of duty on active duty. Eligible employees are entitled to a combined total of up to 26 weeks of all types of FMLA leave during the single 12-month period.

So what does “up to” 12 weeks mean? It means you can 12 unpaid weeks off from work, but you don’t have to take all of it. You can also choose to take it in pieces – two weeks here, two weeks there, for example – but you must have an agreement with your employer about the schedule for time off if you choose to do it that way.

With all this legal protection, can you still be let go after taking FMLA leave? It depends. There are exceptions in the law:

Salaried, “key” employees can’t be denied leave, but they’re not guaranteed to get their job back.

  • If there is a general layoff at your workplace – and that may become more common in the months ahead – you can be laid off too, regardless of your FMLA status.
  • If you are asked for medical certification of a condition and don’t provide it, your employer is not required to take you back.
  • If you run through your 12 weeks and can’t return to work afterward, your job is no longer guaranteed.

If you work for a vindictive boss, then yes, you could be dismissed. Some employers can be devious about citing unrelated reasons for dismissal. A good lawyer can deal with that, but it’s a process that takes time. When there are bills to pay and mouths to feed, you may not have the luxury of time.

If you have a good relationship with your company and you need time away under the FMLA, talk it over with your supervisor. Chances are good you can work something out. Employers understand that even their most valued employees have lives and sometimes life hits you with surprises. The FMLA gives you time to get everything back on track and return to work with a clear mind.

Related Links:

Department of Labor’s FMLA Frequently Asked Questions

Department of Labor’s FMLA site

Department of Labor’s FMLA Final Rule site