Family leave law gives you time for needed care


November 20, 1994|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,Chronicle Features

When Philip Stern took three months off from work after the birth of his first child, he wasn't sure his job would still be there when he returned to the Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y. Two years later, Mr. Stern's second baby is due imminently and he plans to take another leave. But this time he won't have to depend on Kodak's kindness -- federal law guarantees he can return to the same job (as a product engineer), or to an equivalent position.

Mr. Stern is among the growing number of people who are benefiting from a 15-month-old federal law called the Family and Medical Leave Act. It says that employees at many companies have the right to take up to 12 weeks per year off from work for health emergencies or the arrival of a child.

With few exceptions, you are eligible for the leave if you work for a company with 50 or more employees, have been there for at least a year and have worked at least 1,250 hours (approximately hours per week) during the past year.

The company is not required to pay you during your time off or to give you seniority or pension benefits, but it must continue any health benefits you had. Some states have even broader laws that apply to smaller employers or give workers additional rights. Many companies offer more generous leave policies than state or federal law requires -- for example, by continuing life and disability insurance during the period of the leave.

If you are entitled to family or medical leave, your boss cannot fire you for taking it, although the company can fill the position temporarily. When your employer hires a permanent replacement, it must offer you a comparable job upon your return.

Under the law, which applies to about half the work force, you can request a leave in connection with the birth or adoption of a child or when assuming responsibility for a foster child. The law also permits the leave when a serious health condition makes it impossible for you to do your job, or makes it necessary for you to care for a spouse, child or parent (but not an in-law).

A serious health condition means that a person must be in the hospital or needs continuing medical treatment as an outpatient. That could cover a wide range of ailments, from your own severe morning sickness to helping a spouse recover from a stroke. Your supervisor may require a doctor's note as proof that you or a family member is ill.

You can take the leave as an extended absence, or just reduce your schedule as K. C. Burns did after his father became suddenly sick last year. Mr. Burns, a human resources manager at Aetna Life & Casualty Co. in Hartford, Conn., took off an occasional day, and worked flexible hours until his father got better several months later. During that time, Mr. Burns did his work on a portable computer, checked his voice mail remotely when he was out of the office, and delegated some tasks to his assistant.

Most employers won't pay you for the time off, so plan ahead whenever possible to help you afford it. Also, give your supervisor as much advance notice as you can (one month or more). Identify someone who can cover for you while you are gone.

Should the company deny your request for a leave or penalize you for taking it, you may have legal remedies. They include the right to get your job back if you have been fired, to recover wages that you would have been paid, and to get legal costs reimbursed. But first, present your grievance through company channels.

If you cannot handle the problem directly with your employer, contact the nearest office of the U.S. Department of Labor (check your local telephone book). Many complaints can be resolved through a phone call to your boss by a government agency.

Deborah Jacobs, a business writer specializing in legal topics regularly contributes to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Newsweek. Write to her c/o Chronicle Features, 870 Market St., Suite 1011, San Francisco, Calif. 94102. Please include your name, address and telephone number.

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