Advocacy,  Mental Health Education

Special Topic: Making The Family and Medical Leave Act work for YOU!

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Continuing on with our mental health in the workplace topic, I wanted to take a minute to highlight a very important piece of legislation, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)and how it can really help those who are struggling with mental illness stay secure while focusing on getting healthy.

Like all legislation, the FMLA can be thick (not in the good way) and hard to understand for people not in the know.

In this post I’m going to lay out the most common features of act and how they affect you as an employee. You might be surprised what it covers (and what it doesn’t!

So here we go!

What is the FMLA?

The Family and Medical Leave Act was passed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and is under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Labor (follow this link to more info on the FMLA here).

Basically, the act ensures that people with chronic medical issues are treated fairly by employers as they take time off to care for themselves or their family.

We most commonly hear about it in regards to maternity leave, however the act can cover a wide variety of circumstances….

What does the FMLA do?

  1. Ensures full time employees in companies of 50+ people the right to 12 weeks of time off (consecutive or non-consecutive) per year.
  2. Allows an employee to take secured time off to care for a newborn, an adopted child, or a severely ill family member. Most importantly to this article – the FMLA allows you to take time off to care for yourself if you’re going through severe and chronic illness, including mental illness.
  3. Ensures that a full time employee will retain their job position when they return to work (if the position can’t be preserved while you’re gone, the workplace must provide you with a position with the same pay and status – even if they have to create one).
  4. Ensures that the employee will retain their company benefits, including healthcare, during their time off so they can seek treatment.
  5. Upon return to work – the right to intermittent leave during the course of the year to seek treatment, go to doctor’s appointments and for mental health days.

What doesn’t the FMLA do?

  1. Provide paid time off (you’d have to either have a lot of PTO or invest in a short/or long term disability plan through companies like Aflac).
  2. Cover part time workers or contractors.
  3. Cover employees in companies less than 50 people
  4. Cover employees who have worked less than 1250 hours in the last year. So you’re not entitled to FMLA as a new hire generally.

As someone with a chronic mental illness, is FMLA right for me?

Yes.

In fact, FMLA is perfect for those of us struggling with mental health issues.

Lately, I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are suffering through work days because they don’t have any other option. They need to work to retain their benefits and make money.

Still others worry about the stigma of telling their work they have a mental illness. And when it boils down to it, most people don’t even know the FMLA is there to help you or that it even exists.

But the thing is the FMLA is literally made for those of us who have really, really bad days or weeks sometimes. The best thing about it is you don’t have to take all the time off consecutively. You have 12 weeks throughout the year to take here and there to preserve your mental health. Or if you need to take a large chunk of time to go to treatment or an intensive outpatient program, the FMLA provides you with a chance to do it.

I cannot stress this enough- the FMLA is not just for maternity leave, it’s for anyone and everyone struggling with a chronic illness, that includes you and me.

One tip I will offer here is to be transparent with your employer – you’ll find most employers really appreciate it if you take time off to help yourself rather than imploding and never coming back to work. It’s just good business for them.

I know it’s hard because of the stigma behind mental health issues but being transparent and upfront, setting up FMLA leave for yourself and scheduling mental health days ahead of time helps the company plan around your absence and even gives them the chance to try to provide you with accommodations to make your work experience better.

You don’t have to tell your co-workers, but communicating openly about your illness with HR and your boss is a must. It leaves everyone with good feelings and shows that you care about your health as well as the company.

How do I get FMLA?

You’re entitled to FMLA by existing as a full time employee. The company has to provide it to you if you’re experiencing a qualifying event for which a diagnosis of a chronic mental health condition counts.

If they have a decent HR department, the company should already have the paperwork ready once you declare the need for an extended period of time off.

If not, just make sure you go to HR and your boss to request time off under the FMLA. Make it known to your company that you’re aware of your rights.

Is there anything else available to help me in a tough time?

Heck yeah! Here’s a quick and dirty list of supplements and provisions to the FMLA that can help you maximize your time off.

  1. State Leave Acts – 4 states (New York, Rhode Island, California, and New Jersey) have paid state leave acts that supplement the Federal FMLA. Yay for those of you who live in those states! If you don’t live in those states, a lot of others have some kind of unpaid leave act. See the full list here.
  2. Lower Employer Threshold – Some states have their own FMLAs that allow for a company’s employee threshold to be lower than the federal mandate (i.e. an employee in Oregon is allowed to claim FMLA even if they work in a company of only 25 people).
  3. Same sex marriage and common law marriage coverage – The FMLA was amended in 2015 to expand coverage to married same sex couples and domestic partnerships. In addition there are many states that have expanded definitions of what a family is. follow this link to find out how your state defines a family.
  4. Short Term and Long Term Disability Plans – Since a lot of states and the Federal Government don’t provide a paid FMLA, it’s really important to look into disability insurance. Having long term disability insurance in place can save you so so so much financial pain while you’re recovering from mental illness. LTDS are pretty easy to get, have decently low monthly premiums, can cover up to 60% of your missed income and the best part is pre-existing mental health conditions actually don’t disqualify you from coverage. Having a pre-existing condition may cost you a little more or limit the term of your plan but it is sooooo worth it, trust me. A note here: Not all insurance companies provide the same coverage so do some shopping around for the best plan that caters to your specific needs Check out this informative article from Policy Genius for more in-depth info on LTDs in regards to mental health.

That’s a wrap!

So there you go! Now you know how FMLA can work for YOU! Yay! You go Glen Coco!

Image result for you go glen coco gif

But seriously, if you feel stuck or hopeless about your job situation, my greatest advice has always been to take time off and get some perspective. You’re more than allowed to do this – it’s literally a right for you as an employee. The bottom line is just because you’re struggling you don’t have to leave your job (right away) and you certainly don’t have to lose your benefits while you take time to heal.

Whether they mean to or not, employers will take everything they can from you – it’s the nature of the capitalist beast we live inside of. I’m not saying it’s wrong or bad, it just is. I am saying you deserve and have the absolute right to get something out of this interaction too, more than just a pay check. Leveraging the FMLA to your benefit is just one of the many ways you can work with your employer to create the best job experience for you and them.

So take care of yourselves my dear readers and be the best you can be.

Until next time,

Maria B.

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Mad as Hell Mental Health Rights Advocate. Likes margaritas, long walks on the beach, and JUSTICE.

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