Which of the following sounds familiar to you, or might be something you face?
- Your mom breaks her hip and has limited mobility for the next two months
- You develop a chronic disease like Chron’s, requiring repeated visits to a specialist time off from work every time there’s a flare-up, which is inconsistent but persistent
- You have a baby (or your partner does) or you adopt a child
Each of these events and subsequent time off work would generally qualify for protection under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, or FMLA. Additionally, definitions were expanded in the National Defense Authorization Act in 2008 to include unanticipated situations arising from military deployment, such as arranging for child-care or employment after a soldier has been deployed or caring for a service member who has been wounded. In 2010, the Department of Labor again issued a clarification on who one could claim as a “son or daughter” to encompass domestic partnerships even in the absence of legal adoptions.
What is it, exactly? Well, simply put, it means that you can’t be fired for taking leave from work for a qualifying event and if your employer eliminates your position he/she has to find you equivalent work. It protects you for up to 12 weeks leave within a 12 month period for each qualifying event (26 weeks if you’re caregiver to a member of the military). It guarantees continuation of health insurance benefits including employer contributions. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be paid for that time off; that’s up to your employer. Oh, and this only applies to companies of 50 or more employees.
So, why talk about it here? When it comes to taking leave for family crisis events, and you happen to work in a relatively non-traditional environment like a library or academia, there’s a whole host of other issues. Things like promotion potential, balancing responsibilities, taking care of yourself (if the crisis involves a family member) must be considered. In a university setting, add tenure to the list. Searching for “tenure” AND “leave of absence” results in more than 300 hits in Samford University Library’s discovery option, mostly dealing with childbearing decisions, faculty retention, and salary parity.
From the manager’s point of view, too, it’s very important to understand what’s going on and work with your employee. Not only do you want to take care of your people, but you and your library can be legally liable for giving any incorrect information that even accidentally withholds someone’s protections.
Now, obviously this is a pretty complex subject. Throughout the next few articles, I’m going to share my own experiences with this process as well as seek the advice of librarians, HR professionals, and lawyers. We’ll break it down into sections, including:
- What is a qualifying event (hint: it’s not just for maternity leave)
- Leave vs. promotion & tenure
- The emotional toll of caregiving
- From a manager’s perspective
- Where to go for help if you feel unfairly treated
Reasons for taking leave are as varied and unique as the potential solutions for accommodating them. My particular situation was helping my mother as she went through cancer treatments and surgery (she’s great, thank God). If you would like to contribute your story to this series, either as someone who has taken leave or as an administrator who has helped someone work around a difficult situation, I would love to speak with you. Anonymity will certainly be honored, if you prefer or FERPA requires. Just email me at msthomas [at] samford [dot] edu.
One of my goals is to prove the great diversity of scenarios that can apply here, and that your career can indeed continue. As librarians, we seek to empower others with knowledge. We should not hesitate to be fully informed on our own rights as employees, even as a just-in-case.
By Marliese Thomas. Marliese is the User Engagement Librarian at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. She is passionate about technology, sewing, cats, sci-fi, and improving the user experience. You can find her around the web @msthomas and marliesethomas.