The new important work leave: caring for a sick relative

While many kinds of work leave get more attention — maternity leave, sick leave, even pawternity leave — there is one kind that is becoming pervasive but unacknowledged: leave for a sick relative.

Inevitably the day comes at work when you immediately have a decision to make: take time off to care for your relative, or continue to work while someone else tends to them?

The Pew Research Center released an article last week saying that 23% of Americans reported having taken “leave from work to care for a family member with a serious health condition. An additional one-in-four say that if this hasn’t happened to them already, it’s at least somewhat likely that it will in the future.”

The article also points out that “among adults who were employed in the past two years,” 11% left to care for an ill relative, compared to 7% who left work after a birth or adoption, according to a separate Pew Research Center study from 2017.

If you want to leave work when a loved one is really ill, your decision to do so will depend on both the law and maybe even how you think you’ll be perceived when you do.

The Family and Medical Leave Act covers only some sicknesses

The law doesn’t cover all leave, so employers have a wide berth. The Family and Medical Leave Act lumps together taking time off work to tend to “an immediate family member” who has “a serious health condition,” an employee’s newborn baby, adoption and foster care processes, and “medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition,” according to the United States Department of Labor.

If a worker is covered by the law, he or she will have “up to 2 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave” each year, during which “group health benefits” must stay in place.

The FMLA applies to all public institutions, “all public and private elementary and secondary schools,” and companies that have at least 50 workers, but employees also have to meet specific criteria.

But FMLA applies to serious conditions only, usually involving hospitalization — a parent requiring a child’s cold will still have to take a vacation day or a sick day.

A bill to amend the FMLA to allow time off from work after the death of a son or daughter  was introduced in the House of Representatives on March 16.

The Society for Human Resource Management reported that the bill would give a parent who has lost a child up to 12 weeks off.

Bosses think less of employees who take family leave

Unfortunately, taking time off for family could send an unwanted message to your employer.

A 2013 article in Journal of Social Issues shed light on how men may be interpreted when asking for family leave in a study of 371 people.

The researchers cited the 2000 book “Unbending gender: Why family and work conflict and what to do about it” by Joan Williams when discussing “flexibility stigma” in the text. This is a term for “a type of discrimination triggered whenever an employee signals a need for workplace flexibility due to family responsibilities (e.g., by requesting leaves of absence or flexible hours),” the article said.

The researchers found that men seeking to take time off for family matters aren’t always taken seriously.

“The present research supported our prediction that men who ask for family leave are feminized for “acting like a woman” and economically punished as a result. They are also stigmatized as poor workers…which had direct effects on their eligibility for rewards,” the research article says.

The fear of losing your job definitely plays a role in the decision to take family leave.

The Pew Research Center report released yesterday said that “62% of family-leave takers who came back to work earlier than they would have liked say they thought they might risk losing their job if they took more time off. Only 37% of maternity- and paternity-leave takers say the same.”

Will those factors matter when a close relative is very sick? Probably not; many people would choose family over work in those situations. Nonetheless, leaving work to care for someone you love, and who is in grave condition is a big life decision— both professionally and emotionally.