Expectant mothers or fathers often find themselves scrambling to find answers to a number of questions before taking time off of work. Will you be able to take time off to care for your baby — and still keep your job? Are you eligible to use leave guaranteed by the FMLA? Is your company an eligible employer to grant leave? How will your time off affect your and your employer? What happens when you come back to work?
The Family and Medical Leave Act took effect in 1993 to help balance workplace demands with the medical needs of employees and their families. You probably haven’t thought much about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), unless you’ve had a situation arise that causes you to need to take time off to help a family member. Here are a few things that you probably didn’t know about the FMLA.
5 Things You Need To Know About the FMLA
1. What is it?
Under the FMLA, you’re entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period for your own serious health condition, or to care for an immediate family member who has a serious health condition. You may also use the FMLA for what the Department of Labor website refers to as “birth and bonding:” an extended parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child, and for bonding with a new foster child.
It’s important to know you’re state’s definition of an “immediate family member.” Federal law defines immediate family members are parents, spouses and children; however, states have expanded the definition to include domestic partners, parents-in-law, siblings, and grandparents. Check your state’s labor laws as well as with your employer’s HR department.
2. Who is eligible?
Your company must be eligible to let you use extended parental leave (or any extended leave under the FMLA), which means it must have at least 50 employees who work within 75 miles of its location. Again, state provisions differ, so ask HR.
Then, employees within eligible companies must have worked for their employer for at least 12 months prior to requesting extended leave. Also, these employees must have worked at least 1,250 hours in those 12 months. For someone who works an eight-hour day, that’s about 156 days.
Another interesting tidbit: if you and your partner are employed by the same company, you’re entitled to 12 weeks total time combined — not 12 weeks each.
3. Do I have to use paid leave first?
Some employers require you to use up all of your PTO before utilizing your extended, unpaid time off. You would probably want to use your company’s paid maternity leave before taking your extended unpaid leave to be home with your new baby anyway, but know that — before you can use your extended, unpaid leave — some employers may require you to use that paid vacation time you were banking for Hawaii. Sometimes, you need to use up all your vacation days, sick leave, and personal days, and that time will actually be deducted from your 12 weeks leave.
4. Can I really keep my job?
Your employer has to keep the business running while you take off a quarter of the year to take care of your personal life. Legally, you are guaranteed a job when you come back, but it might not be the same job. Don’t freak out yet; according to the Department of Labor, “an employee must be restored to the employee’s original job, or to an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.” This means that if you left work as a manager, you will come back a manager, with the same paycheck; it just might mean that you are managing something a little different or that you are over a different team of people.
HOWEVER, if you’re in the highest 10 percent of your company’s wage earners and your employer can prove that your absence would cause the company significant financial harm, you are entitled to your unpaid leave but you may not be entitled to your job when you return.
5. What about health insurance? According to FMLA, your company must continue to keep you on its health insurance plan while you’re on leave. So you may simply need to continue making weekly contributions to your company’s plan, or your company (if it’s incredibly generous!) may cover your share and not ask for repayment. In some cases your company may offer you COBRA benefits instead, which allows you to be covered under the same plan as you were before your leave, but you’re required to pay the entire premium. This can be very costly, especially with a new family member to insure, so talk to someone in your company’s human-resources department to find out exactly what arrangement they provide.
It’s extremely important to keep up on your state and company FMLA policies and your own eligibility. Check out Avvo’s FMLA legal advice forums and see if you can’t find the answer to your specific question.