How to Take Caregiver Leave: Step-By-Step

Updated

Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

If you are a caregiver with a job, you are not alone. Estimates are that  61% of caregivers are also working. The number may be higher since many caregivers who work are reluctant to let their employer know they are caregiving for fear of losing their jobs. At least 48 million caregivers are taking care of someone over 18. The annual cost of caregiving is already at about $67 billion and is expected to double by 2050.

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So, what are the driving forces creating this tsunami of caregiving? Several factors create a perfect storm of pressure on families to take care of loved ones. The aging population is one factor.

Also, with the pandemic, significant numbers of women and some men have had to stay home with children for remote learning. As senior communities have had outbreaks of COVID, some families are taking care of aging parents rather than placing them in senior housing. 

Families have tried to accommodate caregiving needs while having the least impact on their financial situation. When someone reduces their hours or quits employment, there isn’t just the loss of income.

There is also the impact on future social security benefits and the challenges of re-entering the job market later. So, how can you, as a caregiver, take leave from your job to care for someone knowing that you can return to that job? It is a complicated question and one that doesn’t have the same answer for everyone.

When Can You Take Caregiver Leave?

Caregiver leave is a general term that can apply in two basic situations. One is whatever informal arrangement you have with your employer. Under the federal government, Family and Medical Leave is a mandated policy covering caregiver leave for employers with 50 or more employees. Eligible employees can take up to 12 workweeks within a 12-month period for the following reasons:

  • The birth of a son or daughter or placement of a son or daughter with the employee for adoption or foster care and to bond with the newborn or newly-placed child. (Son or daughter means a biological, adopted, or foster child, a stepchild, a legal ward, or a child of a person standing in loco parentis, who is under 18 years of age or who is 18 years of age or older and incapable of self-care because of a mental or physical disability at the time that FMLA leave is to commence. The onset of a disability may occur at any age for purposes of the definition of an adult “son or daughter” under the FMLA)
  • To care for a spouse, son, daughter, or parent who has a serious health condition, including incapacity due to pregnancy, and for prenatal medical care.  (Spouse means a husband or wife as defined or recognized in the state where the individual was married, including in a common law marriage or same-sex marriage. Spouse also includes a husband or wife in a marriage that was validly entered into outside of the United States, if the marriage could have been entered into in at least one state.)
  • For a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of their job, including incapacity due to pregnancy and for prenatal medical care; 
  • For any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that a spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a military member on covered active duty or call to covered active duty status.

(Taken from the United States Department of Labor Employer’s  Guide to The Family and Medical Leave Act).)

When to take caregiver leave is a complicated question that is individual to each person’s unique circumstances. It is illegal under federal law to terminate someone’s employment because they took FMLA, but they can lose their job for other reasons. Here are some considerations when deciding whether to take FMLA.

  • Assess your financial situation. Take the time to calculate the loss of income while you are on FMLA. If you have a financial advisor, meet with them to look at your ongoing financial needs and the impact of taking FMLA. Based on your financial situation and the care needs of your loved one, you can determine how much FMLA to take.
  • Consider your caregiving situation in the context of the ongoing care needs of your loved one. Taking FMLA may be a wise decision, but it is time-limited, and you might want to have a backup plan when you return to work.
  • Since you may not be paid while on FMLA, are there other resources for caregiving that you could use? For example, adult daycare or paid caregivers could be more feasible than taking the economic hit of leaving your employer.
  • What are your long-range career goals? Taking FMLA can impact your ability to stay abreast of employer changes and expectations unless you try to stay connected. Are you thinking of moving on to another job, or are you near retirement? Evaluating your goals can help you make an informed decision about when to take FMLA and how long. 
  • Is remote work a possibility while you are caregiving? Since COVID, many employers have been allowing employees to work from home. Working from home could allow you to fulfill some of your caregiving duties.

How to Take Caregiver Leave Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Suppose you're deciding whether to take FMLA. Then you'll want to ensure that you have all the appropriate documentation and eligibility requirements. Your employer must provide you with your FMLA rights and documentation for applying for FMLA. If they haven't, request it. 

Step 1: Make sure you meet the requirements for FMLA

You must have worked for at least 12 months for your employer to qualify for FMLA. Also, your employer may require medical certification from a healthcare provider for the person you are caring for. Your employer must provide you with detailed information related to the specifics of the certification process, so you have time to gather the necessary information. Reach out to your Human Resources department for the paperwork.

Step 2: Fill out the Certification of Health Care Provider for Family Member’s Serious Health Condition

The Certification of Health Care Provider for Family Member's Serious Health Condition is the official U.S. Department of Labor form that your family member's healthcare provider must fill out. You have 15 days to return this form to your employer. Your employer has five days to notify you if your FMLA has been approved. Under federal regulations, an employer must notify an employee whether their leave will be paid leave or unpaid FMLA leave. Any medical information your employer provides is private and can't be shared with anyone else. 

Step 3: Fill out form WH-382 if requested by your employer

If your employer hands you the form WH-382, they request additional medical information to support your application for FMLA. If costs are associated with other medical information, your employer must pay for those.

Step 4: If you are a veteran, fill out Form WH-385-V

Form WH-385-V is specifically for an employee who needs FMLA to care for a veteran with a serious illness or injury. The veteran's doctor provides the medical information.

Step 5: If you are denied FMLA

If you feel you have been unfairly denied FMLA, you can write to the Department of Labor and file a complaint. Also, your employer can't require you to do any work while you are on FMLA. Your other option is to hire an employment attorney. It's unlikely that an employer will deny you FMLA if they have more than 50 employees, you have met the employment requirements, and you have provided the appropriate documentation. You can write to the address below to file a complaint. 

Department of Labor
FMLA Complaint
200 Constitution Ave. NW
Washington DC 20210

Can You Get Paid While On Caregiver Leave?

Federal law does not require that you get paid on caregiver leave.  The Society for Human Resource Management and Oxford Economics report estimates that only 35% of employers offer paid caregiver leave. 

Although most employers don’t offer paid leave, they attribute improved performance to their paid leave. Companies that offer paid leave also say it strengthens employee health and wellness (61%) and engagement (60%). Additionally, over half of the companies say paid leave improves their ability to attract (58%) or retain (55%) talent. The reason companies state they don’t provide paid caregiver leave is the cost, but let’s look at some of the costs associated with not providing paid caregiver leave. 

Employee turnover

Nearly 3 million women alone dropped out of the workforce in 2021. Losing talent means replacing employees, which is enormously expensive. A Harvard study showed that 50% of employees aged 26-35 years had already left a job to care for someone. Employers generally vastly underestimate the cost of employee turnover.

Caregiving affects job performance

The Harvard study reports that over 80% of employees stated that caregiving affected their job performance.

Most employers don't measure the hidden costs of caregiving

If employers don’t know there is a problem, they are less likely to remedy it. Employers minimize the financial and work-related costs of caregiving.

Employers underestimate benefits that employees value

Employer's assumptions about what caregiving benefits employees want do not align with what employees say is important — one of them being paid leave.

As a caregiver who needs to take leave to care for a family member, you may be reluctant to request FMLA. There is the fear of losing your job (even though it’s illegal to fire you for taking leave), or you have concerns about staying on top of your job once you return. These are very challenging decisions, but FMLA is there for you to leave your job temporarily to take care of someone. 

As you prepare to take FMLA, consider these tips to allay your fears and give you confidence when you return.

  • Stay in touch with other employees to stay in-the-know of company changes. Try not to isolate yourself, which will make you feel out of touch with your job. Keep your skills up to date. 
  • Find caregiver resources to give you support while you are caregiving.
  • Remember that caregiver burnout can occur when you leave a job to do caregiving full time. Prepare to take care of yourself physically and mentally while caregiving. 
  • Take your FMLA time to put other support services in place for when you return to work, such as:
    • Hiring private caregivers to take care of your loved one
    • If you’re caring for an older adult, consider looking at senior housing, including assisted living.
    • Adult daycare can be an affordable option for older adults where they have care services and activities during the day.
    • Engage other family members in coordinating care for your loved one.

How to Take Caregiver Leave

Slowly but surely, more companies are beginning to appreciate caregiving's impact on their employees. Taking FMLA is your legal right.  If you plan for the loss of income while putting other caregiving resources in place, you can return to your job with confidence.

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