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Understanding Your Rights Under FMLA

Lindsay Olson

You or your partner have a new child. You have an ailing parent who needs around-the-clock attention. You yourself are suffering with a serious illness. All of these are situations that are stressful enough on their own, but having to worry about taking time off from work can just add to the headache.

Fortunately, the government has put into place certain rights for you as an employee that can alleviate some of this worry. Called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), this law provides you with the opportunity to take time off in certain situations. The time you take off probably will be without pay, but you won't jeopardize your job as a result of being away from work.

President Clinton signed the bill into law in 1993 to provide better balance between work and family. The time you take off under FMLA is separate from the sick days you accrue in working at your company.

You Can Take 12 Weeks' Leave in a Year ...

If you--or your partner--want to take off time when you have a baby, this law allows you to do so for up to 12 weeks. Some companies will provide a portion of that as paid leave, while others will make it all unpaid. This is sometimes called maternity leave, paternity leave (as we become more progressive as a society--dads want time off too) or simply parental leave.

If you're adopting a child or fostering one, you can also take leave to help with the adjustment period. This can help the child settle into his new environment more smoothly.

For those whose spouse, child, or parent is seriously ill and needs extra attention, FMLA allows for time off to help care for them. If you suffer from a serious health condition that renders you unable to do your job, that's also covered.

You Can Take 26 Weeks' Leave in a Year ...

If you need to care for a parent, spouse, child, or next of kin who is a member of the military, or if you yourself are a service member with serious health issues, you can take up to 26 weeks of job-protected leave to recover or be a caregiver.

How to Qualify for Family & Medical Leave

Before you ask for an extended period of time off, make sure you qualify. To invoke entitlement to FMLA, an employee must:

--Have worked at the company a year or longer

--Have worked at least 1,250 hours over the last year

--Work at a location where the employer has 50 or more employees within 75 miles

If you're part-time or otherwise don't meet these requirements, you're not protected by the law. Additionally, you can't use FMLA to care for family members who are not your spouse, child, or parent, and you can't use the time to recover from minor illness, like a cold. If you're not sure if you qualify with your situation, speak to your human resources manager.

FMLA is designed to help keep your job safe while you tend to personal matters that qualify, such as having a baby or caring for an aging parent. If you qualify, you cannot be fired for taking time off. When you return to work your employer is required to put you back in the same job or an equivalent job with the same pay, benefits, and any other perks that you had before.

If you feel that you have been wrongfully terminated when you should have been covered by FMLA, contact your local office of the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division to file a complaint.

Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and Hoojobs.com, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at LindsayOlson.com, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.

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