Think About It: OIWC offers pointers to understanding Family Medical Leave Act

Taking a leave from work for either planned or unexpected medical affairs can be just as taxing as the medical situation itself. What you don’t know can hurt you. OIWC offers perspective and tips on the Family and Medical Leave Act and how to navigate the bureaucratic maze.
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Taking a leave from work for either planned or unexpected medical affairs can be just as taxing as the medical situation itself. Doing the research, tackling the paperwork and asking the questions that will protect your paycheck can be overwhelming. What you don’t know can hurt you. If you need to take leave from your job, there are things you must know before you plan your departure.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), enacted in 1993 and updated in 2009, protects the jobs of countless Americans who take a leave for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for an immediate family member, or to tend to a serious medical condition that prohibits one from working.

The U.S. Department of Labor website states, “FMLA is designed to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. It also seeks to accommodate the legitimate interests of employers and promote equal employment opportunity for men and women.” In most cases, if a person has worked for at least 12 months for a public agency, a public or private elementary or secondary school, or a company with 50 or more employees, he or she is eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for the following reasons:

  • Birth and care of a newborn child of an employee.
  • Placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care.
  • To care for an immediate family member (spouse, child or parent) with a serious health condition.
  • To take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.

However, there have been many cases where this law has not been to the benefit of the very people it was designed to protect. Hillary Harding, a cause marketing manager at Big City Mountaineers, and a mother of two, said, “When I was pregnant with my first child, I researched FMLA, but due to the size of our company, I didn’t fall within its protection. FMLA provides such limited protection; I don’t really think it helps very many women. I’d be much more interested in seeing a more comprehensive plan that includes flex time upon return and unpaid time for fathers or partners.”

Harding is not alone. In the OIWC Satisfaction Survey, the highest ranking benefits relating to family were paid family and/or medical leave (76 percent said this was important) and allowing the possibility to work flexible hours following family/medical leave (77 percent said this was important).

Kelly Blake, now an account director at OutsidePR, applied for maternity leave while working for one of the VF company’s brands. Since VF is a larger corporation, and Blake had worked there for over a year, she was protected by FMLA. But it didn’t come easily. “There are plenty of brochures and websites for filling out the paperwork, but it is tedious. I secured six weeks of unpaid leave from VF and then another six weeks from the state of California. That is two sets of paperwork. I think I took my PTO and any vacation time I had as well. It was totally overwhelming. As if you don’t have enough stress while having a baby.”

Blake’s husband also took a week off from work to help with the new baby, but other families aren’t so lucky. A 2000 study by the Department of Labor found that 42.6 percent of men “did not take leave because of a concern their job advancement may be hurt.” Another 31 percent “feared they would lose their jobs.”

FMLA protects both men and women as the concept of the “modern family” has shifted radically over the years. James Levine, founder of The Fatherhood Project, said, “Many men don’t understand they can take leave flexibly. They think it’s going to be a big interruption at work.” Is this a perception or a reality? It might be a little of both, but according to the statements of FMLA, all are protected.

So how do people prepare to take leave and exercise their rights under FMLA? Here are a few general highlights:

  • Talk to your HR department. Employees who want to use FMLA must follow their employer’s call-in procedures for reporting an absence, unless there are unusual circumstances.
  • Know your state’s policy. FMLA varies state to state. You have to do your research and ask questions.
  • Be resourceful. FMLA leave can be used intermittently up to the 12-week maximum. You can generally use sick or annual leave to complement FMLA, so spreading out unpaid leave with PTO and vacation time might be the best option.
  • Understand your assets. Tackling your budget and knowing exactly where you stand alleviate some of the financial burden.
  • Read the fine print. Employers are entitled to cover a position for the employee out on FMLA leave with the “equivalent benefits, pay, status and other benefits of employment.” Your job position might be different when you come back.
  • Be an educated citizen. If you are taking a medical leave, know how to protect your job and ensure your paycheck.

The idea behind FMLA is to protect an employee’s job when they need time to deal with a medical issue. Sounds good, but taking advantage of its benefits may not be a simple matter. It is important to understand how FMLA will affect you -- before you need to use it. There are many important factors to consider when planning for a medical leave so learn as much as you. Start by contacting your HR department, reading up on FMLA and talking to your peers. Then take a look at your options to determine the best way to use FLMA for your situation.

OIWC has pulled together additional resources, personal stories and legal advice for OIWC members. To access these member-only resources, check out the December topic page at www.oiwc.org.

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This monthly column, a partnership between OIWC and SNEWS®, aims to address the issues that concern women in the industry most -- anything that is controversial, topical or newsworthy relating to women and the outdoors. The goal is to help, educate, inspire and grow. We welcome your ideas, gripes, thoughts and comments. Bring it on. E-mail us at oiwc@snewsnet.com.

Devon Sibole is an account executive at OutsidePR, an outdoor-oriented public relations and sports marketing firm in San Francisco. Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition is a membership community of professionals in the outdoor industries united to provide power, influence and opportunity for women in outdoor-related businesses and to generate champions to inspire other women. For more information, visit their website at www.oiwc.org.

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