Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Consider combining FMLA leave, telecommuting

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Hopefully, you will never experience health problems serious enough to compel you to use leave available under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

But because health and family crises may arise suddenly, you should always carry with you your boss’s contact information so you can inform him of your need for FMLA leave as soon as possible.

Also, always carry with you any passwords, security tokens and Web addresses you need to remotely access your work email and the desktop of your work computer.

If you must take FMLA leave for a crisis or for the birth of a child, consider asking your boss if you may combine it with telecommuting. Doing so would enable you to extend the total amount of time you may stay out of the office for your crisis; conserve FMLA leave, which your employer may limit to 12 weeks annually; and generate income and accrue sick and vacation leave even while you’re out of the office.

Although supervisors are required to approve valid requests for FMLA leave, they are not required to approve requests to combine FMLA leave with telecommuting. However, your supervisor would probably be most likely to approve such an arrangement if you already have a telecommuting agreement in place and have a reputation as a reliable telecommuter when you request it. So consider laying the groundwork now for any future need you may have to combine FLMA leave with telecommuting.

Advice for combining FMLA leave with telecommuting:

* When you craft a FMLA-telecommuting arrangement with your boss, identify with him your telecommuting projects. If you can’t predict how much time you will need to telecommute during your crisis, select high-impact projects that have no hard deadlines for your telecommuting period, if possible.

* When your leave begins, inform all appropriate professional contacts about your leave status.

* Craft your out-of-office email and phone messages to reflect your likely response time, and include a referral to a colleague who can handle time-sensitive issues.

* Regularly update your boss on your progress on your telecommuting projects. If you fall behind schedule on a project, tell your boss about your situation in a timely manner. No surprises.

* Unfair though it may be, your boss will probably scrutinize your productivity more closely when you’re combining FMLA leave with telecommuting than when you’re telecommuting under normal circumstances. So report your telecommuting hours with due consideration; don’t do anything that would raise questions about your trustworthiness and thereby potentially jeopardize your FMLA-telecommuting arrangement — even if this means erring on the side of underreporting your hours.

* If, during your absence, your telecommuting hours are being submitted to your agency’s time-keeping system by a timekeeper, keep precise records of your telecommuting hours and then check the accuracy of such records when you return to the office.

* Phone into staff meetings, if possible, to create “a presence” in the office during your absence.

* Keep your boss informed, if only in general terms, of the status of your personal situation while you’re on leave. When you can estimate your return date to the office, inform your boss accordingly.

* Maintain a running list of everything you worked on while telecommuting, your projects’ positive impacts and the resulting positive feedback you received from managers, colleagues, clients or other associates. When you return to work, meet with your boss to thank him for extending himself for you; remind him of the hardships you’ve faced, if appropriate; and submit to him a list of your FMLA-telecommuting accomplishments along with any available tangible evidence of their success.

Also, give your boss with a quick “show-and-tell” presentation of your best telecommuting accomplishments. You will thereby impress your boss with your productivity while telecommuting, even if he has already forgotten the contents of your weekly updates or if he never reads your complete list of telecommuting accomplishments — which, unfortunately, is an all-too-likely possibility.

* When you return to work, inform all appropriate professional contacts of your return.

Explore options before taking leave from work

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If you must take leave from work because you are sick or need to care for a sick family member, you have a range of leave options that probably include:

• Accrued or advanced annual leave. You may be advanced as much annual leave as you would be expected to accrue throughout the rest of that leave year.

• Accrued or advanced sick leave. You may use up to 13 days of sick leave per leave year for bereavement or for caring for a sick family member who is not necessarily seriously ill; and up to 12 weeks of sick leave per leave year to provide psychological comfort or physical care to a seriously ill family member. You may be advanced up to 30 days of sick leave.

• Up to 12 weeks of leave without pay (LWOP) within any 12-month period under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Contrary to popular belief, you are not required to exhaust all of your annual and sick leave before taking FMLA leave.

FMLA also provides job protections, and health insurance is maintained under FMLA leave. In most cases, you may take FMLA leave in combination with whatever forms of paid leave are also available to you — including teleworking, credit hours, comp time, annual leave and sick leave — and thereby “stack” leave.

Some caveats: You are required to provide notice of your intent to take FMLA leave at least 30 days before the start date of that leave or, in emergencies, as soon as possible. Beware that you may not retroactively substitute any form of paid leave for FMLA leave. So be sure to inform your supervisor in writing or via email of your intention to take FMLA ahead of time, if possible, and remind him of your FMLA leave status when it begins.

A little-known fact: An agency may grant an employee LWOP outside of FMLA if, for example, an employee needs additional time to recover from an illness.

• Up to 24 hours of LWOP per leave year for school and early childhood educational activities; routine family medical purposes; and elderly relatives’ health or care needs.

If you’re debating which form of leave to use, consider:

• A supervisor generally cannot deny sick leave or FMLA leave to an employee who provides required medical certification. However, a supervisor may deny a request for annual leave if the employee is needed at work during the requested leave period.

A supervisor may also deny a request for LWOP outside of FMLA or the 24-hour LWOP option.

• FMLA leave may only be used to cover care for a parent, spouse, child or child of a same-sex domestic partner — but not a domestic partner. However, sick leave may be used to cover care for additional types of family members, including parents-in-law; siblings; grandparents; grandchildren; stepparents; stepchildren; foster parents; foster children; guardianship relationships; same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners; and any individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with the employee is the equivalent of a family relationship. The 24-hour LWOP option may be used to cover care for a same-sex domestic partner or the child of such a partner.

• You must be in pay status either the day before or the day after a holiday in order to get paid for that holiday. So if you use some form of unpaid leave in combination with some form of paid leave, time your dates for paid leave accordingly.

• Whenever you take paid leave, you continue to accrue annual and sick leave. But this is not so when you take LWOP: Once you accrue 80 hours of FMLA leave, you will not earn annual or sick leave during that pay period. If you take unpaid leave in combination with paid leave, you will accrue annual and sick leave prorated to the amount of paid leave you take.

Go to the Office of Personnel Management website for more information on leave.