The Other Side of HR – part 3: FMLA

This month, The Buzz on HR is doing a series about the things I’ve learned on the other side of the HR equation, as an employee experiencing an event that happens to thousands of employees every day. Week 1 looked at Benefits. Week 2 looked at Employee Relations. This week, it’s the FMLA.

My first pregnancy was a rough one. I had horrible morning sickness well into the 2nd trimester, repeated urinary tract infections and kidney stones! Oh my — and TMI! I was often late for work just trying to get the nausea under control and I left early a lot for doctor’s appointments and there were some days I just couldn’t pull it together enough to go in at all. Somewhere in there, my employer notified me that my time was being counted toward my annual entitlment under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) but I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to that. In fact, I didn’t even send back those Serious Health Condition certification forms for over a month.

When I finally gave birth and went out on official maternity, I only had about 5 weeks of FMLA time left to use. I was shocked! At that point in my career, I had not administered leave of absence so I was really unfamiliar with the rules of the FMLA. Even now, I’m not sure what I was thinking or how I managed to burn through all my time during those early months. I couldn’t believe I was in danger of not having a job to come back to. My doctor wasn’t going to clear me to return to work for at least 6 weeks and the daycare wouldn’t let the baby start until he was 9 weeks old — and I was going to need time for his appointments and such even after I went back to work. None of it was going to be protected.

After 5 weeks, I got a notice that my FMLA had expired and an ultimatum from my employer. I would either be terminated or I could accept an alternate position. The alternate job was basically a demotion and it was also a significant drop in pay. I was definitely not prepared for that! So I chose to let my employer terminate me. It was a devastating turn of events at a time when I should have felt on top of the world.

7 years later, I am grateful for the lessons I learned, both as an employee and as an HR professional.

  • As an employee, I learned the FMLA is not asylum, absolution, amnesty or sanctuary! Just because the law protects you doesn’t mean that you don’t have to respond to requests or keep your employer informed about what is going on with you or be mindful of the impact of your absence on the workplace. You have responsibilities too — and the employer has their own protections under the law. Do what you can to educate yourself about how the FMLA works as soon as you know you are going to need it.
  • As an HR professional, I learned the importance of compassion and clear communication when dealing with people and the FMLA. No one talked to me at all. I saw these people every day but all communication about my medical issues was delivered by certified mail. I guess it was partly because they didn’t want to upset me further and partly because they were annoyed with me and my attendance. However, the letters were full of confusing legal-ese that someone who is sick and/or stressed from dealing with everything surrounding a health or family crisis doesn’t have time, energy or desire to interpret. HR professionals have to be sensitive to this. Unless the goal is to confuse the employee and/or have them to run out of FMLA time so you can terminate employment, a conversation to check-in and explain some things is the right thing to do.

In the end, the termination turned out to be a good thing for me. After a couple months, I found a new job — and it was better than the one I lost! It set my career on it’s current trajectory and the rest is history.

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