How To Effectively Leave Work To Care For A Loved One

Caring for a loved one can be one of the most enriching experiences of your life.  It can also bring a new set of challenges and hardship.

God forbid if your loved one faces a serious health event you may need to step away from work for a short period of time.  If this is the case my heart goes out to you.  This is a challenging time and you deserve a lot of support.

When there is a need to step away from one’s job the first question people often ask is ‘where do I start?’  What’s underneath this question is ‘how do I step away without losing my job?’

In this piece I will go through the exact steps of transitioning away from work for a period of time.  By the end you will know how to work with your employer to get the time off you deserve.

This article addresses 5 specific questions:

  1. Am I Alone?
  2. What is the cost?
  3. How can I work with my employer?
  4. Who else can help me?
  5. What specific steps should I take?


1. Am I Alone?

You are far from alone:

  • 45 percent of workers will have elder care responsibilities by 2019 (AARP)
  • 43 percent of workers have child care responsibilities (AARP)
  • “3 out of 4 distant caregivers spend the equivalent of a full day a week managing their relatives’ finances and overseeing daily needs, including meals, doctors’ appointments and transportation.” (NYT)
  • The average caregiver is a 49 year old woman who dedicate 20 hours a week to a loved one (NYT)

Our country is country of caregivers.  We are a people of love.  We support those in need and always have.

The mistake many people make is they don’t take advantage of government and employer plans to help with this transition.  We’ll go through exactly what those programs are.  I’ll provide you with the steps to use them quickly.


2. What Is The Cost?

Years ago I graduated from college and worked in strategy at a financial firm.  I bought a condo, drove a new car and bought a bunch of new clothes.

The one thing I didn’t do was invest in my 401k.  A few years ago I sat down and calculated what I had lost.  I was stunned.  Not investing in my 401k for 3 years cost me $400,000 by the time I was going to retire.

What we lose financially is not always evident to us until we take an honest and hard look.  It’s often hidden behind the scenes.  Let’s take a good look at what you may be missing out on by stepping away from work.

There are 3 financial principles you need to know.

1. Math Is Power – Many people hate math.  However 99% of the math you need in life you learned before you graduated 8th grade.

Take 3 minutes now.  Pull out a pen and paper.  Write down how much you make at your job in a year.  Divide that by the number by fifty-two.  That’s your pay per week.  Multiply that by the number of weeks you will be away from your job.  If you leave (or have left) this is the money you are leaving on the table.

2. Remember The Rocking Chair – Think about that rocking chair you’ll be sitting in when you retire. What color is the grass?  Can you feel the sun on your face?

People often forget about the retirement contributions they will miss if they leave work.  According to the NYT, women who cut back on hours to care for a parent loose on average $64,000 in Social Security Benefits.  If they leave the workforce all together the number is $131,000. (NYT)

Use the Social Security Benefits Calculator to determine your projected benefits if you don’t know them.

3. Bring It All Together – Take your lost income from not being at your job and your lost retirement contributions. Add them together.  This is the real cost of leaving your job.

“A female caregiver who leaves the work force to care for a parent will lose, on average, more than $324,000 in wages and Social Security and pension benefits over a lifetime, according to a 2011 study from MetLife and the caregiving alliance.” (NYT)

Why is this all important?  You and your family need to understand the cost of stepping away from work for a period of time.  Once you have the numbers you can choose what path is best to help your loved one.

Many paths exist.  Taking a leave of absence, getting help from an at-home nurse, and recruiting family members to help are a few.   Now that you have an accurate financial picture you can consider what’s best for your family.

Next let’s consider how to work with your employer.


3. How Can I Work With My Employer?

My mother was always a fan of a good snow day (she still is).  Crackers, cheese, soup and a good movie.  In grammar school I missed 34 days of school one year.  The teachers weren’t happy ;).  But I was.

Most families start with a few days off.  They eat up vacation days, they work from home, but then it becomes too much.

In 1993 the Clinton administration passed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  This policy allows you to keep your job even if you need an extended leave (weeks or months) to care for a loved one.

If you are considering a partial departure from your job the FMLA is for you.

Let’s get to brass tacks, FMLA:

  • Keeps your job for your return but doesn’t pay you while you are out
  • Often enables you to keep your health insurance
  • Only applies to companies with more than 50 employees (generally)
  • You must have worked at your employer for 12 months
  • Leave is available for up to 4 months during a 12 month period

Who can you care for?

  • Parent, spouse, child, new born or adopted / foster child
  • Additional people can be included depending upon the state (state references here)

Many employers and managers are not familiar with the FMLA.  I wasn’t familiar with all of the details when one of my employees came to me about a year ago.  Make sure you do some research online and speak with your HR group about the specifics of the policy at your company.

Next, let’s look at what alternate avenues you may have at your disposal.   Then we can look at exactly how to apply for the Family Medical Leave act.


4. Who Else Can Help Me?

America is behind.  Woefully behind.  We do not offer paid family leave.  This puts us in the ranks with countries like Liberia, Suriname and Papua New Guinea (NYT).  Also, the fact that the FLMA only applies to companies with 50+ employees cuts out 40% of working Americans.

Paid family leave is rare.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 11% of private industry workers have access to paid family leave (NYT).

The rest of the world looks at it differently.  38 of 53 countries in Europe and Central Asia offer 26 weeks or more of paid family leave (NYT).  America needs to wake up.

So where else can you turn?

# Category Comments
1 Medicare Does not cover at home care
2 Medicaid Does cover some at home care
3 Long-term Care Insurance Does cover some at home care
4 Family Speak with family about the costs and ask them for help
5 Private At Home Caregiver Find an at home caregiver (full time / part time)

Let’s discuss next the steps to submit a FMLA waiver at your workplace.


5. What Specific Steps Should I Take?

Completing your FMLA forms and going through the process is less bureaucratic than you might think.  The form is relatively short.  Your employer will take care of a lot.  Conversations with you manager will be important.  We will discuss it all.

Below are the steps to fill out the Family Medical Leave Act waiver.  They are straight forward and achievable.

You can do it!  The benefit to you and your family will be measurable.

Step 1: Review the process

Here is the FMLA employee guide created by the Federal Government.

Boiled down here is what you need to know:

  • Most of the standards are up to your employer (e.g., time of notice, if you need medical sign off from your doctor, whether you will be required to use paid leave)
  • Employer must notify you within 5 days of your leave if you have been accepted
  • Employer must let you know how you can keep your health benefits
  • Employer must let you know that you can return to your job

You can also contact the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.  They are responsible for enforcing the FMLA.  They can be reached at 1-866-487-9243 or in one of their 200 offices throughout the country.  Here is the Government FMLA website.

Step 2: Speak With Your Employer

I was 24 when I first asked for a raise.  My boss Steve had silver grey hair and a big office.  I was terrified.

I practiced the conversation a few times with my family.

“I want to chat with you about my performance”, I said.

(Gulp.  Awkward squirm of my body.)

“Sure”, Steve said.

I remember thinking ‘Oh, Crap.  What they hell do I say now?”

Conversations with your manager can be challenging.  He or she may be surprised.  The fact that you need to leave the team for a period of time will be hard.  However if you have a close relationship and they take their role seriously they will try and help.

Funny enough not all managers are aware of the FMLA.  You may need to help with some minor coaching.  Get your company’s Family Leave policy from HR (it will reflect the FMLA with likely some nuances).  Review it.  Show it to your manager during your conversation.

The number one thing you want to confirm is the stability of your job.  The law requires that you return to the exact same job or one extremely similar.  It needs to be the same title, require the same level of skill, be in the same (or nearby) location and offer the same work schedule.

Share your needs.  Enable them to be successful.  Have an open and honest conversation.

Step 3: Fill Out The Form

Again, your employer may have an amended form for your company.  However this is the government form.  Each state often has their own form too.  Here is the form for New York.

3 parties are often involved in completing the form: you, your employer and your doctor (if required).

You need to define (or have your doctor complete):

  • Reason for family leave
  • Care you will need to provide
  • Expected length of departure
  • Necessary medical information (if required)

The length and detail of medical information required depends upon your company.  Some may want the detail but most will not.  In general, if you want to leave and you fit the criteria you can leave under law.

Net net most forms are 2 to 3 pages.  You can do it!

Step 4: Wait To Hear Back & Plan

Many employers must fill out a formal acceptance or denial of request for family leave.  Practically this will be a conversation between you and your boss.  However this is what the federal response form looks like.

Recap with your family.  Review with them the financial impact.  Talk about the steps you are taking to take leave from your job.  Ask them for help.

An important thing is to begin the conversation about long-term possibilities.  Speak with them about what course of action you might take as a family if Mom or Dad gets increasingly sick.  What are the plans to think about at home care?  Should a nursing home be considered?

Many of these conversations need to start early.  Planning for large transitions take time and long-term thinking.

Want more methods to effectively work with your employer while caring for a loved one?  Fill in your information below.

Published: March 19, 2015
By: JP Adams

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