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Family and Medical Leave Act for caregivers

by Isabel Fawcett

American workers who care for their parents sometimes perceive resistance to their leave requests for eldercare. Some caregivers perceive working parents of newborns as experiencing greater tolerance at work relative to time off requests for childcare, maternity or paternity leaves. Real or perceived workplace disparities aside, caregivers need to become informed on the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that provides eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year (Denotes FML year may be a calendar or, rolling year at employers' discretion). Under FML group health benefits must be maintained during such leave.

Eligibility under FMLA requires the worker to have been employed by the employer at least 12 months, and, a minimum of 1,250 hours over the past 12 months at a location where the company employs 50+ employees within 75 miles. FML helps employees balance work and family.

FMLA Qualifying Family Events

If subject to FMLA, employers are required to grant FML for:

  • Birth and care of the newborn child of an employee
  • Placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care
  • Care for an immediate family member (spouse, child or parent) with a serious health condition
  • When the employee is unable to work due to a serious health condition.

FMLA is more complex than eligibility basics shared in this content. Additional information is available from the U.S. Department of Labor.

FMLA and Caring For Parents

FMLA includes parents, not grandparents, among qualifying family if there is a serious medical conditions. Federal law notwithstanding, some workers perceive push-back from employers on eldercare leave requests. It is best to understand FMLA before having to invoke FML.

My experience balancing paying jobs with caregiving has been met with supervisory understanding and good faith over the years.

  • It helped that I was upfront and specific with prospective supervisors regarding my commitment to caregiving and to the terms and conditions of my employment.
  • Explore how an employer manages work and family life balance prior to accepting a job offer. If you are a finalist for a job, make clear your work and family priorities without over-sharing personal information. Choose employment as carefully as businesses choose hires. Request a copy of human resources policies governing FML and other work and family life benefits.
  • Being off work for 12 weeks, whether consecutively or intermittently and expecting more time off with a supervisory wink-and-nod after the caregiver's return-to-work is not reasonable. It is disruptive to production.

While employed, I never applied for FML though eligible, even when my mother underwent surgery and extended in-home recovery. On the day of her surgery, I took a single day of personal leave I requested in advance. Once I had a tentative hospital discharge date, I requested (in advance) additional vacation days to provide assistive care. I returned to work at first opportunity once her health stabilized. I deferred any personal leave pending her full recovery and avoided excessive time off for months.

Facing FML circumstances for eldercare, I would apply for FML--if I had no accrued leave balances on the books. Otherwise, my accrued leave can be used judiciously to accomplish eldercare. FML is my emergency standby.

FMLA Rights and Responsibilities

Employers have responsibilities to workers. Similarly, employees have responsibilities to our employers. Employer and employee rights and responsibilities are inextricably linked.

Employee responsibilities unequivocally include:

  • Regular attendance is required. Some job descriptions state: "Attendance is an essential job function." If mostly absent from work, an employee does not add value to the business.
  • A satisfactory or higher level of performance is also required. FML does not invite nor does it excuse poor performance.

FMLA and Employee Rights

There are many employee legal protections, rights and worker leave benefits where available or applicable.

In addition to FML, there may be other leave benefits and policies. For example, State of Texas government agencies offer sick leave pool, extended sick leave, catastrophic sick leave and emergency leave, each subject to applicable terms and conditions.

Flexible work schedules, if allowed by employer policy or practice, flex time may be used by caregivers to balance eldercare and work. A four-day work week allows planning medical visits during hours away from work without punitive disciplinary consequences to a caregiver's attendance and performance record.

It helps to understand your legal rights and responsibilities to your employer. If true, assure your employer that you are committed to fulfilling your employment obligations. Achieving successful work and family life balance is always worth it.