When family leave is a must

@Money May 8, 2012: 6:22 AM ET
Is caring for a sick family member getting in the way of your job? Taking leave from work can relieve some of the burden, if handled correctly.

Is caring for a sick family member getting in the way of your job? Taking leave from work can relieve some of the burden, if handled correctly.

(MONEY Magazine) -- You're not normally one to let your personal life interfere with work, but when you're ducking out of the office a few times a week to take Dad to dialysis or your kid to physical therapy, it's tough to get everything done to your usual standard.

Perhaps you need a break from juggling. Thanks to the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you may be entitled to up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off per year to tend to certain family-care needs. More workers took advantage of this right in the past year, a recent Towers Watson survey found.

"As the economy picked up, people felt more comfortable asking for time away to deal with personal matters," explains Tom Billet, a senior consultant at the firm. Should you find yourself needing a respite to focus on family, take these steps to ease the transition.

Know your rights

To qualify for FMLA leave, you must have worked for a company with 50 or more employees for at least a year and put in 1,250 hours in that time. FMLA applies if you, a parent, child, or spouse develops a serious illness, sustains a major injury, or requires ongoing medical treatment.

Other eligible circumstances: births, adoptions, and the deployment or recuperation of a military family member. The law guarantees that your position will be restored when you return. Health coverage continues while you're away, but you probably won't accrue vacation or retirement benefits.

More men choosing kids over career

See if you afford it

Before putting in for leave, be sure you can manage without the income. Don't have several months' expenses banked in an emergency fund? Use paid vacation first.

For your own ailments, exhaust sick days; also inquire about short-term disability. Should your relative only require intermittent care, take the leave, but work a few days on, a few days off to keep cash coming in.

Get buy-in from the boss

You can't be fired for taking FMLA leave, but the way you manage this process can affect the way your employers view you -- and your promotability. So be proactive.

Start by explaining the situation to your boss (you'll be required to provide proof). Specify how much time off you'll need, and ask what you can do to lessen workflow disruption.

"Problems arise when people take leaves in dribs and drabs," says Las Vegas employment lawyer Mary Chapman. "It's harder for HR to keep track, and co-workers inherit a larger workload."

Best to make the leave as predictable as possible. For example, schedule appointments for Junior's physical needs at the same time each week. Also, open up to co-workers about what you're dealing with, advises Christopher Metzler, a human resources professor at Georgetown. Otherwise, your empty chair may raise eyebrows -- and questions about whether you're slacking.

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