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Family and Medical Leave: How to Tell Your Boss You Need Time Off

Federal law allows many to take leave without pay for caregiving purposes

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With demands from your paid job and simultaneously unpaid family caregiving, no day is long enough.

You want time off from work to focus on family responsibilities, but you don’t want to lose your job. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) might be the answer to your dilemma, but most Americans aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of the law.

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FMLA, enacted in 1993, offers qualifying workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for illness, the birth of a child or caring for a sick loved one. The version of President Biden's Build Back Better bill approved Nov. 19 by the U.S. House of Representatives would provide four weeks a year of paid leave for those causes and cover far more workers.

Pending final action on Build Back Better, which is awaiting a Senate vote, FMLA remains the last federal word on family leave. Here’s are some key questions and answers to help you find your way through the law's provisions and open a conversation with your supervisor about taking time off for caregiving.

Family and Medical Leave Act eligibility

Does the law cover everyone?

No. Eligibility depends on the size of your employer and how long you've worked there. The law doesn’t cover more than 40 percent of the U.S. workforce.

Paid family leave available

in some states

As of November 2021, six states and the District of Columbia had provisions for employees to receive paid time off for caregiving and three more states had such programs pending.

• California, benefits available
• Colorado, benefits begin Jan. 1, 2024
• Connecticut,
benefits begin Jan. 1, 2022
• District of Columbia, benefits available
• Massachusetts, benefits available
• New Jersey, benefits available
• New York, benefits available
• Oregon, benefits begin Sept. 1, 2023
• Rhode Island, benefits available
• Washington, benefits available

How can I tell if my employer falls under FMLA?

The law covers these workplaces:

  • Private-sector companies that have 50 or more employees working within a 75-mile radius of the office or facility to which they report. That must have been the case for at least 20 weeks in the current or previous calendar year for the company to fall under FMLA. If you work at a smaller outpost of a large company, you may not be eligible for family and medical leave even if colleagues at headquarters are.

  • Nonprofit organizations are covered under the same rules for staff size and proximity as for-profit businesses.

  • All public agencies and schools are covered under FMLA, regardless of the number of people working there.

How do I know whether I’m personally eligible?

As an employee, you must have done the following:

  • Worked at least 12 months for an employer covered under the law

  • Worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to taking leave

The law's benefits

How much leave do I get?

You get up to 12 work weeks of leave — unpaid leave — in any 12-month period to care for a newborn; an adopted child or foster-care child; or a child, parent or spouse who is seriously ill.

The leave can also be used to help employees during a transition when children, parents or spouses are called to active military duty, or to recover from an illness yourself.

When you return from leave, your employer must return you to your same job or a nearly identical one. Your employer also must cover your health insurance while on leave.

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No paid leave? 

Not under federal law. Some states, municipalities and companies go beyond federal requirements to provide paid leave or use of sick leave to care for a loved one.

“Unpaid family leave can create a financial hardship for many working families,” Feinberg says. “There is definitely a growing momentum across the states for paid family leave.”

What if a grandparent, sibling or in-law is seriously ill?

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have expanded the definition of family for caregiving purposes: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin, according to a September 2018 AARP report.  

Talking to the boss

If I qualify under the federal law, what note should I hit when speaking with my supervisor about time off?

Don’t be apologetic.

“This is your right,” says Ellen Bravo, cofounder of the national advocacy group Family Values @ Work, about family leave policy. “The law exists for leave, and you are able to take it. Say, ‘I have just received devastating news about my mother. I want to be there, and I am going to be there.’ ”

What's the proper timing for that conversation?

If your needs are foreseeable, the law requires that you give your supervisor at least 30 days before taking FMLA leave. If an emergency makes that impossible, give notice within one or two business days when you discover the necessity.

If you’re caring for an older family member, lay the groundwork ahead of time for a conversation with your supervisor about possibly unexpected or planned leave.

“Make sure your supervisor understands that you have other family responsibilities in addition to your job and making a living,” says Lynn Friss Feinberg, senior strategic policy adviser at the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Making it work

What if leave disrupts my responsibilities at work?

The 12 weeks of leave do not have to be consecutive.

“Work with your employer to help make your absence smooth,” Bravo says. “But I like to say that all of us are special but none of us are indispensable. So people when they are off work can actually be off.”

Could taking leave hurt my standing in the workplace or even my career?

It should not. When you talk to your boss, “act as if you are talking to a person of good faith even if you don’t believe it,” advises says.

If your supervisor wants to reassign you to a lower position, “remind your boss, ‘I know what the FMLA says. Can we work this out?’ ” she says. If the problem remains unresolved, go to your human resources department, and if necessary file a complaint to the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Colleagues’ snide comments, implications or pressure also are a form of retaliation. If a supervisor doesn’t squelch it, go upstairs if you have to.

Balancing family leave and my job is a challenge, but if you handle it well, your employer might see you in an even better light.

“It means that you are committed to your family and committed to your job and want to do the right thing,” Feinberg says.

Editor's note: This article, originally published Oct. 23, 2019, has been updated with information on the federal paid leave proposal and state family and medical leave policies.

Kim Keister is a freelance journalist and former executive editor at AARP.

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