How to care for yourself without derailing your career

health illness

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month the following is the first part of a three-part series regarding coping with a serious health condition, like cancer, in the workplace.

This first part deals with the immediate:  getting time off work for treatment without losing your job.

Oftentimes illnesses such as cancer require time off work for surgery and/or treatment.  Below are questions you should ask/steps you should take to position yourself to heal and recover without derailing your career or losing your job.

First, find out if your company is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  Employers with 50 or more employees within a 75 mile radius will be.

Second, determine if you are protected by the FMLA.  If you have worked for your employer for at least 12 months and during those 12 months worked at least 1250 hours you should be.  There is a minor exception here for “key employees” but that exception applies to only very high level employees.

Eligible employees are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave.  Many of our clients are shocked to hear that the leave is unpaid and they should be.  The United States is the only industrialized country not to require employers to offer paid sick leave. (But that’s an issue for another blog).  If you are eligible for FMLA leave your employer must continue your health insurance while you are off work. And, at the end of the 12 weeks your employer must return you to your former job or one that is substantially similar.

Note: the FMLA may be used at all once or intermittently in increments as small as a quarter of an hour.  This can be extremely helpful if you are able to work part-time or just need time off for treatment or follow up doctors’ appointment.

Third, if you are not FMLA eligible do not panic. Consider if there are other ways to keep your job while getting the treatment you need.

For instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and many state human rights laws, including the Illinois Human Rights Act, require employers to accommodate an employee’s disability.   Courts have held that a reduced schedule or a temporary leave of absence can be a reasonable accommodation in many situations.  Therefore, if FMLA is not an option or if you have exhausted your FMLA you should consider requesting a leave of absence (either full time or part-time) as an accommodation under the ADA.  An employer can only deny an accommodation if it can prove that granting the accommodation would be an “undue burden.” We advise our clients when they make the request to explain to their employer (preferably in writing) why the request is reasonable and some options for how the employer could manage in the employee’s absence. The law does not require you do this but it makes it a lot harder for an employer to deny a request if you do.

Finally, the world is full of good people. Some employers will simply do the right thing and keep your job open while you need it.  Is it an inconvenience to the employer?  Probably.  Is it still the right thing to do?  Absolutely. Absent any legal protections, having an open and honest conversation with your employer about your condition and about your doctors’ expectations for recovery can go a long way with making your employer feel secure in granting the time off.  Employers are oftentimes afraid to allow an employee time off because they fear it will go on forever.  Educating your employer about your condition and treatment can eliminate the unknown.

Next up:  Part II:  Compensation during your medical leave.