Work Schedule Flexibility in Times of Need – the Family and Medical Leave Act

Have you fallen ill?  Has someone you love fallen ill?  We hope you can answer both of those questions with a “no”; but, for many of us, health problems arise that can shake our lives up dramatically.  On top of the enormous stress that comes from the physical ailments of having a health issue and trying to pay off medical bills, there is the added pressure of balancing work with doctor’s appointments, treatments and rest.  It can be overwhelming.  The good news is that there are options.

The Benefits and Who Qualifies for Them

The Family and Medical Leave Act, or “FMLA,” is a powerful bit of federal legislation that may help you navigate your or your family member’s medical problem.  It allows you to take up to 12 weeks of medical leave from work for you or your family member’s “serious health condition.”

But what is a “serious health condition?”  It sounds like you have to have something pretty serious, right?  Not necessarily.  A “serious health condition” can mean many things.  It can be an illness, injury or condition that requires an overnight stay in a hospital or other medical facility.  It can be something that requires recurring doctor’s appointments.  Or it can be something that requires continuing treatment, whether it be medication, physical therapy or some other procedure.  The point is:  “serious health condition” covers a broad range of medical issues, and if you think you might qualify, it’s worth looking into – just go to your employer’s Human Resources Department and see what they say.  If they tell you that you don’t qualify, it may be worth it to contact a doctor or lawyer to get a second opinion.

But of course, there are other issues that you need to be aware of when determining whether you qualify for FMLA leave:  how big your employer is and how long you have worked there.  To qualify for leave under the FMLA, your employer must employ at least 50 employees within a 75 mile radius of the location where you work.  If you’re unsure about this, here’s a good rule of thumb:  if you tell someone where you work, and they don’t ask you what that is, there’s a decent chance your employer meets this threshold.  You must have worked for your employer for at least one year and must have worked 1,250 hours in the 12-month period leading up to your request for leave.  No tips for you here, I became a lawyer because I don’t like math.

So let’s say that you’re pretty sure that you have a “serious health condition” or you’re taking care of a family member who has one, your employer is big enough, and you’ve worked for them long enough, now what?  Now you go to your boss or your Human Resources Department and tell them you need the paperwork to apply for FMLA leave.  They have to give it to you or at least point you in the right direction.  The paperwork isn’t too lengthy and your doctor fills out the tricky stuff, so don’t worry about that.

If you’re approved, you have up to 12 months of leave to take within the next 12 weeks.  You can take all of it at once, 12 weeks straight through.  You can just take 3 or 4 or however many months you need if you don’t need the full 12.  You can even take a few hours here, a few hours there, a day tomorrow and a day next week; whatever you need – this is called intermittent leave.   The downside is that your employer is not required to pay you for the time you take off, but at least you can take the time off without being fired.

Keep Your Employer Honest

The FMLA not only provides you the right to take leave, it provides you protections to facilitate that right.  It is illegal for an employer to fire you for taking FMLA leave – this is called retaliation.  It is also illegal for your employer to try to keep you from taking your leave – this is called interference.  If you think this has happened, is happening, or is about to happen, contact a lawyer.  After all, you shouldn’t be punished for trying to take care of yourself or a loved one.

For more information on the FMLA, check out the Department of Labor’s website: