This article is by staff writer Honey Smith.

Disclosure: I am not an attorney or HR specialist. This is just my experience with, and understanding of, FMLA.

According to the United States Department of Labor (DOL) website, “The Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) provides certain employees with up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave a year, and requires group health benefits to be maintained during the leave as if employees continued to work instead of taking leave.” The whole point of FMLA is to promote work-life balance by taking a reasonable amount of leave to deal with personal or family issues.

Because many situations requiring use of FMLA are health-related, the law also requires that your health insurance be maintained as if you continued to work. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) allows employees to stay on a former employer’s health plan for a limited time after job separation, provided they pay the full premium (employer share and employee share). Unlike COBRA, if you are on FMLA, then your employer still pays their share of the premium for your health plan, even if you are not being paid a salary during your leave.

Eligibility for FMLA

There are some criteria that must be met to be eligible for FMLA. First, you must work for an organization that is required by law to offer FMLA benefits. Fortunately, most employers fall under the requirements. For example, all public — state, local and federal — employers as well as schools must offer FMLA benefits. Additionally, FMLA benefits must also be offered by “private sector employers who employ 50 or more employees for at least 20 workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year,” according to the DOL.

Just because you work for an employer that offers FMLA benefits doesn’t mean that you, particularly, are eligible for FMLA leave. You must have worked for an employer for a year before you become eligible for this benefit. Not only that, you must have worked at least 1,250 hours during that year (about 25 hours/week). Finally, you must work at or within 75 miles of a location where at least 50 employees work. Your company’s HR department can be a good source of information about whether they participate in FMLA and whether you, specifically, qualify. You can also find out whether the employer offers FMLA benefits when you interview your prospective employer.

Most of the time, when people talk about FMLA, they are referring to parental leave. Sometimes, FMLA is talked about in the context of caring for a seriously ill family member. However, there are other circumstances under which FMLA leave can be used such as if the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition. And, probably in recognition of the fact that not all people need or can afford 12 weeks of continuous unpaid leave (though a beefy emergency fund in an online savings account can help in that type of situation), FMLA benefits can be taken on an intermittent basis.

When to take intermittent FMLA

Intermittent FMLA may be used for any of the situations in which an employee is eligible for FMLA benefits. Intermittent FMLA requires that employers and employees work together to agree upon a leave schedule that offers minimal disruption to the employer’s operations. Only the amount of time taken to deal with the approved situation may be charged as FMLA leave. However, some employers allow FMLA leave to be interspersed with other types of leave. For example, an employee might take a week of FMLA leave followed by a week of vacation followed by a week at work, and then repeat the cycle. The intention behind intermittent FMLA is to provide flexibility for both employer and employee. This allows you to prepare to get sick.

Why I took intermittent FMLA

In December, I was diagnosed with a herniated disc and needed a series of treatments once a week for three weeks to address it. The doctor only offered these treatments on Wednesdays and each one would require the full day off for the treatment itself, plus other possible partial days off for recovery. Once the treatments were complete, I would need at least six weeks of physical therapy twice a week.

I had more than enough sick time to accommodate this. However, the first four months of the year were busy season for me. So my supervisor suggested that I apply for intermittent FMLA so that the time off was job-protected and couldn’t be used against me in performance reviews. The process was pretty simple. I took a form provided by my employer’s HR department to the doctor providing treatment, and the doctor completed the form and faxed it back to HR. It took about two to three weeks of processing time, and then I was notified that I was approved.

According to the DOL, accrued paid leave may be used to cover FMLA leave, depending on an employer’s policies. In my circumstance, I used accrued sick time, and just noted it as FMLA-approved leave when I submitted my time and leave requests in my employer’s payroll system. This meant that, in my case, I was paid for the time off. Had I not had enough sick time accrued, I might have had to use vacation time or unpaid leave. Fortunately, that wasn’t my situation.

During the first three and a half months of the year (up until I left that job), I took 87.50 hours of sick leave, worry free. While I did take whole days off for my procedures, a lot of that time was used for doctor’s appointments and physical therapy sessions, or just to take partial days off (since sitting in a chair for too long was hard for me). Since as I said this was during my busy season at work, it was a relief to be able to take the time I needed without fear of reprisal. I did have to be really efficient during the time I was in the office and make a plan with my supervisor to ensure everything that needed to be done was getting done! Once the date for my full return to work was determined, my doctor filled out another form which my HR department provided.

Final thoughts

I won’t be eligible for FMLA at my new employer for a year. That was part of the reason I negotiated a month’s notice before leaving my former employer. However, I am doing much better, and while my new employer’s sick policy isn’t as generous, I can set my own schedule and work from home if needed. So while I’m glad FMLA exists, I do have options to take care of my most important asset (my health) that I can use if necessary.

Have you ever used FMLA (intermittent or otherwise)? Share your experience in the comments below!

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