Compliance with the spirit of family leave law varies Communication: To avoid problems, advise the boss about an impending absence and provide updates.


January 21, 1996|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,CHRONICLE FEATURES

Workers used to worry that if they took time off for family or medical reasons, they would get fired. Now a federal law guarantees that you can be out for up to 12 weeks per year in certain cases and still have a job. Unfortunately, it isn't always that easy.

Many businesses don't like the Family and Medical Leave Act. While it's illegal for them to punish you for taking leave, companies have found legal ways to, in effect, do just that.

In a nutshell, the law protects most people who work for a company with 50 or more employees and have clocked at least 1,250 hours during the past year. Your company doesn't have to pay you during the leave, but it must offer you the same health benefits and pick up its share of the premium.

You're entitled to leave for childbirth, adoption or the taking in of a foster child. When you can't do your job because you have a "serious" health condition, or if you need to care for an immediate family member who has one, you can take an extended absence, intermittent leave (such as one day a week on a continuing basis) or reduce your schedule. For more details, I recommend the question and answer guide available for $8 from the Women's Legal Defense Fund, 1875 Connecticut Ave. N.W., 710, Washington, D.C. 20009.

Since the law took effect less than three years ago, a lot of hairsplitting has gone on about what's a "serious health condition." Heart attacks, severe morning sickness and most cancers are covered. Minor ulcers, chicken pox and the flu may not be. One insurance claims examiner lost her job after a four-day absence to take care of a child with an earache. A federal court said the health condition wasn't grave enough to be covered by the law.

The best way to prevent trouble is to bring the boss a doctor's note. It should include the buzzwords "serious health condition," say how many visits to the doctor's office or a hospital you will have to make, and indicate the type of treatment that's required.

For lengthy illnesses, you should provide updates -- a simple note on your doctor's prescription pad saying, "Jane Jones is improving, but still has a serious health condition and will need to be out until March 1." If you're taking the leave to care for a family member, the note should explain why your role is essential.

In emergencies, give as much notice as you can. Call to say: "My child is really sick. We're going to the doctor. I'll call you back as soon as I know what's wrong."

When you're able to plan (for example, if you need an operation), give at least a month's notice. Try to work out a schedule of when you will leave, how long you need to be out and the date you hope to come back. If possible, discuss who will handle your work while you're gone. Confirm your understanding in writing, saying that you are taking time under the Family and Medical Leave Act. This builds a paper trail in case the company later holds the leave against you. Keep copies of all relevant documents at home.

If you've approached your company about taking leave and your boss has said no or something noncommittal like, "We'll get back to you," contact the nearest office of the U.S. Labor Department Wage and Hour Division (check the phone book). They've had a good success rate investigating complaintsand getting companies to comply with the law.

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