Can You Legally Take Off for a Sick Relative? What You Should Know about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Your child wakes up with the flu, your partner gets in a car accident, or you’re diagnosed with a serious illness. You want to stay home to take care of them — but you’re out of sick days at work.

You know you need to be there for your family’s or your own health — but will your job still be there for you when you return?

Fortunately, the number of sick or vacation days you have left may not be an issue, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If you’re eligible, the FMLA allows you to take unpaid leave and keep your group health insurance for certain family and medical reasons. It also guarantees your job will be there waiting for you when you return.

If you or someone you love gets sick, you may not want to think about work, but it’s an important reality to consider. Without the FMLA, taking time off may cost you your job or health insurance. However, only certain situations, employers, and employees are covered. Here’s what you should know about the FMLA and how it could help you and your family.

The FMLA: The Basics

The purpose of the FMLA is to help you balance your responsibilities to both your family and your employer.

About 60 percent of employees in the U.S. are eligible to use the FMLA. If you’re covered, you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year, which can be taken all at once or in separate blocks. During your time off, you’ll be able to maintain your group health insurance and have peace of mind that your job will be there when you return.

The FMLA won’t cover everything, but it does cover serious situations.

    If Eligible, You Can Take 12 Weeks Off (FMLA) When …

  1. You or your partner have a baby (within one year of their birth).
  2. You adopt or foster a child (within one year of their placement).
  3. Your spouse, child, or parent has a serious health condition.
  4. You have a serious health condition that makes you unable to do your job.
  5. You or your spouse, child, or parent needs to attend to military duties (such as short-notice deployment, military functions, or child care related to military duties).

You can also get leave from your job for up to 26 weeks to care for a spouse, child, or parent who is a member of the military and is seriously injured or ill. This applies to any next of kin (such as your brother or grandparent) if they’ve designated you as their caregiver.

What Is a Serious Health Condition?

Some situations when you might use the FMLA are pretty straightforward, such as if you have a baby or you need to attend a military function. However, the FMLA also allows you to leave work if you or your spouse, child, or parent has a serious health condition, which is a little more complex.

A serious health condition is an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that requires one of two things: inpatient care or regular health treatment.

Inpatient care means that you or your loved one has to stay overnight in a medical care facility, such as a hospital. It also includes any care that results from that overnight stay. For example, if your partner is in a car accident and spends a week in the hospital, the FMLA would allow you to take time off work to care for them when they return home.

Regular health treatment includes:

  • Incapacitation (inability to perform regular activities, such as going to work) for more than three days in a row
  • Pregnancy
  • Chronic health conditions that require regular treatment (at least two times a year) or occur in short periods of time, such as epilepsy or asthma
  • Permanent or long-term conditions, such as a severe stroke or Alzheimer’s
  • Conditions that need multiple treatments, such as multiple surgeries after an accident or chemotherapy

The FMLA is meant to cover more serious situations — not your annual dentist appointment or your child’s run-of-the-mill flu. It doesn’t cover illnesses that can be managed with routine care, such as over-the-counter medicine and rest.

This means that if your child gets an earache or you wake up with a migraine, the FMLA isn’t going to cover your day off. However, if those lead to more serious complications, your FMLA coverage may kick in.

What about Substance Abuse?

Excessive alcohol or drug use can cause health problems and other issues at work, school, or home — and it’s a serious disorder that may require medical treatment. Fortunately, the FMLA allows you to take time off to properly treat substance abuse or care for a loved one that needs to. For example, if you or your partner, parent, or child go to a rehabilitation facility for substance abuse, the FMLA covers your leave from work.

It’s important to note that your employer can’t fire you for using the FMLA to take leave — but they can take action if you have agreed to a company-wide policy regarding substance abuse and break that agreement.

The FMLA: Covered Employers and Employees

While the medical side of the FMLA may be a little more complex, the rules about who is covered are straightforward. Your employer must be covered to provide you with the FMLA benefits — and you need to meet the requirements, too.

Your employer is covered by the FMLA if they are a:

  • Public agency, such as government agencies of any size
  • Private company with 50 or more employees that work 20 or more weeks each year
  • Public or private elementary or secondary school of any size

Covered employers must also have at least 50 employees that live within 75 miles of the company’s location.

You are covered by the FMLA if you meet all three requirements, which are:

  • You work for a covered employer
  • You have worked for your employer for at least a year, which includes seasonal employment
  • You have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year (for airline flight crew employees, you only need to have worked at least 60 percent of the hours you’ve been offered or 504 hours)

If you are not eligible for the FMLA, your employer can’t designate your leave as FMLA — even if they want to. However, they can allow leave according to their own company policy. Once you do become eligible, your remaining leave can become FMLA-protected.

How Do I Use My FMLA Coverage?

So you know you need to leave work to take care of your or your family — now what?

Taking leave with the FMLA isn’t much different than how you would normally request off work. When you need to take leave using your FMLA benefits:

  • Notify your employer according to their normal requirements, such as through an online system or in-person.
  • Provide your employer with enough information to determine if the FMLA will apply to your situation.
  • If you know about your leave ahead of time, request it 30 days before you need it.
  • If your leave is an emergency, request your leave as soon as possible.

Should I Use My FMLA Benefits?

Deciding to take off work — and for how long — can be a difficult decision. You can’t be punished for using the FMLA, and your employer is required to allow you to return to your job with your original pay and benefits. However, your employer is not required to pay you while you’re gone, which can cause some financial burdens.

Think about what’s best for you and your family. Could you take off one week instead of two? Can another family member help out every once in a while? Are you able to afford to go without pay while you’re gone? These are just a few of the questions you should ask yourself before taking an FMLA leave.

Take the time to decide what makes the most sense for your individual situation — and know that the Family and Medical Leave Act may be able to provide you with the flexibility you need to take care of you and your loved ones in a time of need.

A primary care provider is a great place to start if you have questions about the Family and Medical Leave Act. Call Stormont Vail Health at (785) 270-0082 to schedule an appointment with a Stormont Vail primary care provider.

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