Sometimes, situations arise where an employee is unable to work for a number of weeks or months, either because he or she falls ill, or because he or she needs to provide care for an ill family member. Now in the past, employees who had no choice but to be out of work for an extended period of time risked being terminated. But thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act, workers who take a leave of absence for medical or related purposes can rest assured that their jobs will be protected.

Introduced in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, provides job security to countless American employees who go out on leave for medical reasons. Under the law, workers are allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to address their own health issues or care for a family member.

Mother and newborn in the hospital

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

How FMLA works

Though not all employees are eligible for FMLA, if you're employed by either a public agency, school, or private company with at least 50 employees, and you work at least 1,250 hours during the 12-month period leading up to your leave, you're entitled to FMLA. This means that your employer must allow you to take up to 12 weeks of leave during the year without the threat of losing your job. Furthermore, your health benefits must be maintained during your leave as if you were working.

You can take leave under FMLA for the following reasons:

  • To care for a newborn child and recover from childbirth
  • To care for an adopted or foster child
  • To care for an immediate family member, such as a spouse, child, or parent
  • To address a health issue of your own that renders you unable to work

Keep in mind that if you're pregnant, and you stop working a few weeks before delivering your child, that time will count toward your leave under FMLA. Another thing you should know about FMLA is that the 12 weeks of leave you take during a given year need not be consecutive. Say your father undergoes surgery, so you go out on leave for 10 weeks to care for him, leaving you with two weeks remaining for the year. You can then take one day off per week for 10 weeks to provide follow-up care or accompany your father to medical appointments.

Benefits and drawbacks of FMLA

FMLA has helped countless workers hold onto their jobs and retain their health benefits in situations where they would otherwise be terminated or left without medical coverage. FMLA also offers employees more flexibility in terms of working while caring for ill family members.

That said, FMLA in no way guarantees paid leave, so while you're entitled to 12 weeks away from the office under the law, your company is not required to pay you during that time. Many workers who don't have any savings or a means of paying the bills without a paycheck tend to forego the option to take leave under FMLA because they can't afford to be out of work.

While FMLA offers a certain degree of protection for workers, it's by no means a financial safeguard. The only way to preserve your finances in the face of an extended leave is to have emergency savings on hand. That, along with a much-needed dose of job security, can go a long way when medical issues arise.

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