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Career Advice

Addressing Leaves of Absence

Ensure paralegal employment upon return.

By Mary Meinzinger Urisko

January/February 2001

Web Exclusive (Originally appeared as "I'll Be Back")

 

In 1987, I quit practicing law full time after the birth of my second child. I had a great opportunity to teach at Madonna University for two days a week. The timing was impeccable. The difference in salary was made up by the decrease in daycare expense. It worked especially well, because the children only spent two afternoons a week in daycare, with their dad picking them up at dinner-time, so I could teach night classes.

We essentially worked back-to-back shifts to minimize daycare. And now, 13 years later, I see my friends and colleagues working similar shifts to be at home with teenagers, who need as much supervision as toddlers, especially in the wake of the Colombine High School and various other school shootings over the past several years.

Life is unpredictable. Often we find ourselves in unforeseen situations and we have to be prepared to deal with the consequences. How many of us have faced needs for personal medical leaves, or the need to take a day off to care for a spouse, parent or child? The demands on caregivers in the workplace are tremendous. The working caregivers experience increased stress and thus, productivity decreases. As a result, more law firms and companies are opting for flexible work schedules to accommodate personal leaves for paralegals, attorneys and other support staff.

"More legal professionals are working flexible hours to minimize day care," said Pam Cobb, CLA, of Hale, Headrick, Dewey, Wolf, Golwen, Thorton & Chance in Memphis, Tenn. Cobb said she sees "more employers offering flexible hours for parents, with varied times for beginning and ending the work day." A number of independent contractors, such as legal nurse consultants, work from home and many of these independent contractors are also parents.

Cindy Geib, CLAS, of Scott E. Albert, Attorney at Law, Mount Joy, Penn., changed jobs several times over the past several years to be able to accommodate her family and parental obligations. She now works five days a week, from 9 a.m. until shortly before 3 p.m. so she has enough time to send her children to school and pick them up after their school day is over. If Geib has a project at work that needs to be completed, her employer doesn’t mind if she brings her children to work. "It really helps to have a boss who is very involved with his own children. He never misses a parent-teacher conference or a sporting event. His family comes first," Geib said.

There is also a need for eldercare leaves. According to the American Association of Retired Persons’ (AARP) Web site, more than 22 million Americans are caregivers for their parents or older relatives and friends; most work full or part time." More specifically, the Family Caregiver’s Alliance indicates that 56 percent of caregivers work, 17 percent quit their jobs to provide care and 15 percent reduce their work hours to care for a loved one. As a result of the impact elder care giving has on the work force, employers are starting programs to help employees through these situations. For example, the gerontology department at Madonna University "brown-bags lunches" on a variety of eldercare issues. These professionals bring their lunch to work and spend much of their lunch hour meeting to discuss such issues. Other employers offer flexible work schedules, the use of vacation and sick time, as well as leaves of absence, to accommodate these needs. Donna R. Lenhoff, general counsel of the National Partnership for Women and Families, cited the statistics on the percentages of leaves of absences that were taken in 1994 to 1995 under the Family-Medical Leave Act. Sixty percent were for the employee’s own health conditions, 17 percent were related to childbirth and adoption and 21 percent were to care for family members, including 8 percent for seriously-ill child, 4 percent for a seriously ill spouse and 9 percent for a seriously-ill parent.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the need to provide for eldercare by employees is driving a growing number of job changes and some evidence exists that transitional workers seeking family care benefits may be important players in the tight labor market.

The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents employers from asking applicants about family members with disabilities, so potential employers may not inquire about it.

What’s Driving the Changes?

While maternity leaves became a fact of life in the 1980s, it wasn’t until the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) that employers of 50 or more employees were required to provide leave time for employees.

In addition to providing 12 weeks of unpaid leave for childbirth and adoption, the FMLA requires employers to provide the same option to employees "to care for the spouse, son, daughter, or parent, of the employee, if such spouse, son, daughter or parent has a serious health condition." The FMLA defines a serious health condition as one involving inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, residential medical care facility or continuing treatment by a health care provider. The definition also applies to adoption and care of the employee’s own serious health condition. This requirement may be altered by agreement between the employer and employee to include paid or partially paid leave, intermittent leave or a reduced work schedule. State law may also modify it.

Employers are learning in a tight labor market, retaining quality employees is key.

"We view these work or life programs as a true win-win proposition, because they enable us to attract and retain the best and brightest candidates by providing employees with flexible options," said attorney Gary Hayden, Office of the General Counsel at Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich.

What Have Employers Done to Accommodate Care-Giving Employees?

Some employers have developed transitional work arrangements (TWAs). Ford ranked among the top 100 best companies to work for by Working Mother magazine for the past four years as a result of its work-life programs.

Ford offers about eight to 10 weeks of paid maternity leave, with the option to request additional unpaid leave for up to one year. Unpaid paternity leaves are also available. Telecommuting and flexible work schedules are also a part of Ford’s package, as are work place lactation and child-care programs.

Hayden’s policy, which is consistent with that of the company, is to "accommodate employee’s requests whenever feasible." Currently, he has a senior attorney on extended maternity leave, and at least one senior legal assistant participating in both the telecommuting and transitional work arrangement. Amy Lance, a senior legal assistant at Ford, works three days in the office and a half-day a week from home.

Jo Mahaffey, a document processing supervisor who works for Hayden, was skeptical about having an elder care leave authorized, but ended up telecommuting one day a week for several months in 1999 to care for her elderly, ailing mother. Karen Caldwell, a company legal assistant, worked three days a week for five months after the birth of her second child.

What’s the Best Way to Request a Leave?

While maternity leaves and one’s own serious health condition leaves typically involve a straightforward 12-week leave for recovery, other family leaves may not. Reviewing your employer’s policy, providing as much advance notice as possible for your leave request and proposing a work delegation plan isn’t only good form, but also may be required by the FMLA.

The FMLA imposes certain duties on employees who take leaves for planned medical treatment for themselves or their family. These duties include:

  1. making a reasonable effort to schedule the leave so it doesn’t disrupt, unduly, the operations of the employer, subject to the approval by the employee’s or family member’s doctor
  2. providing 30 days notice before taking the leave, if applicable. If 30 days notice is not possible, then the employee must give whatever notice is practicable.

"Advance planning is critical. We need to plan ahead as far in advance as possible for coverage," Hayden said.

At Ford, the work of the person taking the leave is spread among others in the practice group. While this temporarily burdens those in the office to an extent, it had the benefit of "accelerating the cross-training and development efforts of the company," Hayden explained

Shawn Murphy, a litigation attorney with Ford Motor Credit Co. also located in Dearborn, suggested adequate notice might mean notice "given farther in advance than the companies’ policy requires." He highly recommended "preparing a plan to assure that your responsibilities are handled in your absence. For example, take the time to train the person covering for you, wrap up as many projects or assignments as possible before you depart."

Communicating with your supervisor while you are off is also important. Murphy suggested during a leave of absence, the employee "be available for consultation" and "keep management informed as to any unexpected circumstances that could affect the leave," such as a change in the duration of the leave.

What If the FMLA Doesn’t Cover the Employee?

If an employee isn’t covered by FMLA, he or she should approach the employer with a good reason for needing the leave of absence such as pregnancy or personal health. Secondly, the employee should propose a plan that will be as painless as possible for the employer, and, at the same time, allow for an adequate leave for the employee. This might mean proposing a leave of the shortest duration possible and returning when scheduled to return. Additionally, provide as much advance notice as possible and present the employer with a solid plan for how the workload will be handled while you are out.

Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error before a TWA plan works. Caldwell had difficulty balancing her workload because it was not reduced proportionately to her reduction in work hours. As a result, she ended up working at home, which "somewhat negated the principle of working part time," she said. More planning might have made this a better experience.

The End Result

Caldwell, Lance and Mahaffey all said they appreciate the opportunities they were given to work a transitional work schedule to accommodate family and elder care needs. Caldwell said she gained the opportunity to "focus on my family at a crucial time without making the all or nothing choice of leaving the work force." The opportunity prevented her from having to put her six-week-old newborn in daycare 50 hours a week. Mahaffey said her "loyalty to the company soared." Lance found she still can supervise six employees, and has the opportunity for advancement even though she is working part time.

The end result: All are healthy, productive employees at Ford. TWAs can be mutually beneficial for both the employee and the employer when respectfully managed.

 

 

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