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Chronic Illnesses and FMLA

Chronic illnesses affect approximately 133 million in the U.S., according to the National Health Council. While many of the people affected do manage to hold down a job, it is not possible for others, for a variety of reasons. If you do have a chronic illness, you do have the option in most situations to use the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to attend treatment. However, many employers are not well educated on this and can sometimes suspect abuse or malingering. You need to know your rights.  

Definitions & Requirements

The  Family Medical Leave Act was passed in 1993, and it grants covered employees the option to take unpaid leave to deal with specific health issues or emergencies. Examples of covered issues include pregnancy, “serious” health conditions, or caring for an immediate family member (such as a child or spouse) with a serious health condition. Case precedent has widened the definition of ‘serious’ to include chronic conditions.

Under the FMLA, a chronic health condition is defined as an illness that requires periodic treatment over an extended period of time (usually more than three months), and causes “episodic” absences from work due to inability to perform, rather than constant absence. There are further specifications about the number of doctor visits required to qualify an illness as chronic, but many employers do not hold strictly to the standards, instead preferring to adjudicate such issues on a case-by-case basis. It can be to your advantage to check on how your employer handles such things.

Unique Issues

Despite how prevalent chronic illnesses are in the U.S. – the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that approximately 75 percent of all health care costs come from chronic conditions – many employers are not well versed in the rights of the chronically ill. Despite the fact that ‘episodic’ absences are explicitly protected under FMLA, many employers attempt to use such conditions as reasons to terminate an employee, alleging abuse of the statute. To do so is wrongful termination, if it can be proved that your condition meets the definition of ‘chronic’ as stated in the law itself.

Another common source of problems and confusion is the issue of who is ‘covered.’ Misinformation on that score unfortunately abounds, but the Department of Labor has clarified the original list somewhat, so as to hopefully alleviate issues. Covered private employers are companies that have 50 or more employees working at least 20 weeks per year; covered public employers are any local, state or federal agency. Elementary and secondary school employers are always covered, regardless of whether they are public or private. However, employees must still meet the criteria to receive FMLA, even if their employer is covered by the Act. Employees have to have worked for the covered employer for at least 12 months (not necessarily consecutively), for at least 1,250 cumulative hours in the past year, at a location where there are 50 or more employees within 75 miles.

Hire An Experienced Attorney

Having a chronic illness can often mean bureaucratic misunderstandings and even mistreatment. If you believe you have been unfairly treated because of your FMLA leave or your chronic condition, you may be entitled to compensation. Attorney A. Christopher Potts has handled many different FMLA cases at his Charleston firm, and is happy to discuss yours with you. Call us today at 843-577-5000 to set up an initial appointment.

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