If you’re a caregiver for an aging family member, you’ll probably need to miss work at some point to help with medical treatment or unexpected emergencies.
In fact, the likelihood is so great that there’s a federal law — the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — which protects your job if you need to take leave to care for a family member.
The FMLA helps workers balance their jobs with leave time for things like a major illness, having a baby, or acting as a caregiver for a family member with a serious health condition.
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The FMLA has been used more than 100 million times since its enactment in 1993, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. However, not every employer or employee is eligible, and simply relying on your employer to keep you informed may not be the best choice.
“It’s amazing what companies don’t know about FMLA,” says Robert Ottinger Jr., an employment attorney at Ottinger Employment Lawyers in San Francisco. FMLA violations are especially common at companies with fewer than 100 employees, which may not even have a procedure in place, he says. That’s why you need to know your FMLA rights — especially if you’re a caregiver.
The FMLA provides eligible employees with up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period. Employers still have to provide the same group health insurance benefits at the same premium while you’re on leave. When you return to work, they must give you the same job or an equivalent.
You’re allowed to take FMLA leave all at once, intermittently in blocks of time, or even by reducing your work schedule. Not everyone is eligible, though.
You’re eligible for FMLA if:
Even though FMLA leave is unpaid, many companies offer paid or partially paid FMLA leave as a company benefit. Also, in addition to Washington D.C., these states have laws that provide some form of paid family leave:
Once you determine your FMLA eligibility, you’ll need to find out whether your caregiving situation is covered as well.
On April 1, 2020, a temporary federal law expanded parts of the FMLA as part of a response to the coronavirus. The rule allows paid sick leave for families with medical emergencies related to the pandemic, as well as for employees who take leave to care for a child because of a school closure. The temporary FMLA changes expire December 31, 2020.
Caring for parents is covered under the FMLA, but don’t simply assume that you can take FMLA leave to care for any family member you love. For instance, you may think of your father-in-law as a second dad, but in-laws aren’t considered “immediate family” under the FMLA — and grandparents usually aren’t, either.
Your employer is required to grant FMLA leave to eligible employees for these events:
Both you and your employer must comply with certain requirements when it comes to FMLA. For example, you’re required to provide your employer 30-days advance notice when you expect you may need to use FMLA leave in the near future. Plus, it’s best for caregivers to find out options before a crisis occurs.
When it comes to unanticipated FMLA time, like rushing from the office because your dad was injured in a car crash, let your employer know as soon as practicable, Mazaheri says. Even if you have to call from the emergency room, make sure you don’t wait for days without providing an explanation.
“As long as your employer knows, they shouldn’t terminate you because their obligations under FMLA would be triggered,” Mazaheri explains.
At the same time, your employer can’t intentionally delay paperwork or ask for unnecessary medical information. While you’ll need to provide certification of your loved one’s medical condition, your boss isn’t allowed to pry into your life.
“Employers don’t have carte blanche to ask personal medical questions unrelated to the need for protective leave,” Mazaheri says.
That means if you request FMLA leave for your mom’s cancer surgery, your supervisor can’t ask you to hand over your mom’s psychological records. However, an employer is allowed to ask for clarification if there’s reason to believe an employee is being dishonest, according to Mazaheri.
If your company illegally denies or interferes with your FMLA request, Ottinger recommends showing your employer a printout of the federal law. If that doesn’t work, “It’s time to call a law firm to write a quick letter,” Ottinger says.
You can file a lawsuit for FMLA violations, and if an employer illegally retaliates by firing you or changing your work conditions, you can probably also add a retaliation count. To find an employment lawyer, search the directory at the National Employment Lawyers Association.
Knowing your FMLA rights can mean the difference between being there to help your aging parents or regretting that your job kept you from helping them when they needed you most.
Deb Hipp is a freelance writer in Kansas City, Missouri, who specializes in caregiving, aging and senior living.