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Caregiving Grandparent Gets Fired

FMLA does not go far enough to protect families

When June Cruz heard her daughter's distressed voice on the phone, she knew she had to go to her.

See also: Moving from surrogate dad to granddad?

Cruz's daughter, due to give birth any day, was overwhelmed. Her husband had broken his collarbone and was unable to help with anything in the house, including the couple's 2-year-old. He couldn't drive. Who would get her to the hospital once she went into labor? Who would coach her through childbirth?

"For her to call me up crying, that's not the norm for her," Cruz says. "She was freaking out. Her husband is needing her to help him take a bath, and she can't even take care of herself." All Cruz could think about was getting on a plane as soon as possible.

Cruz had already asked her boss at the Publix supermarket in Ocala, Fla., where she worked as a cake decorator, for two weeks off to fly to Colorado once the baby was born. But now she'd have to leave earlier than anticipated. Cruz believed that the time off — the two weeks she had been approved for, plus two more weeks she requested orally — would be covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Two days later, she flew to Colorado. Four weeks later, after the baby was born and the family was managing on its own, Cruz called her manager at Publix to find out what her work schedule would be once she returned.

baby in briefcase – Grandparents babysit and lose their jobs

Taking care of your grandchild could get you fired from work. — Marc Carter/Getty Images

"They said, 'You've been terminated,' " Cruz says. "I'm like, 'I've been what?' They told me this didn't fall under family medical leave. And I didn't have a leg I could stand on."

Cruz filed suit against Publix, citing an unlawful denial of an FMLA claim. She lost the case, however, for several reasons. First, helping take care of grandchildren is not covered under the FMLA. Second, Cruz requested FMLA leave to take care of her daughter, but being uncomfortably pregnant is not a disability, and so Cruz's leave was not protected by FMLA. And the court held that Cruz did not follow proper procedures in requesting FMLA leave.

Cruz says she got oral confirmation from Publix headquarters that the extra time off would qualify under the FMLA. But this was all done by phone, and she had no written proof to back up her claims. Publix declined to comment for the story, stating that corporate policy prohibits discussing any specific employee matters.

This happened seven years ago. Cruz, now 55, was never able to find another cake decorating job. She's since moved to Colorado to live with her daughter. "Now I'm unemployed," Cruz says. Had she not been fired, "I would have more of a 401(k). Now that I'm getting close to retirement, I'm really worried about it."

Next: Not the only case of a grandparent fired or penalized. >>

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