Sick and Fired: Medical Leave Does Not Always Protect Your Job

January 21, 2016

Being sick is the worst… except when being sick means you need to be away from work for an extended period. Then, that is the worst. Many employees worry about taking even one sick day, so the thought of taking a medical leave for weeks – or even months – can be terrifying. What if I lose my job? How will I manage without my benefits?

To help employees better manage life events – like childbirth, medical conditions and caring for elderly parents – Congress enacted The Family and Medical Leave Act (or “FMLA”). The Act is a group of federal laws that give certain employees the right to a reasonable leave of absence from work for medical reasons.

Some states, like California, also have their own employment leave laws that work with FMLA. Others – like Georgia – rely on and follow only the federal law.

When you take medical leave under FMLA, the law protects you from losing your job or your employment benefits because you took leave. At the end of your leave, your employer must give you back your job (or give you a job with the same pay and benefits as the one you had before your leave).

Many people are aware of FMLA. In 2013, ten years after FMLA became law, Congress studied how well it worked. That study found that 16% of all eligible employees who could take leave under FMLA did so. Of those people, 55% of them took a medical leave (as opposed to maternity or paternity leaves, etc.).

Despite the fact that FMLA is widely known and used, people often misunderstand FMLA protections. FMLA does not prevent your employer from firing you for any reason while you are on medical leave. Your employer may still fire you if you are an at-will employee (meaning, you don’t have an employment contract) and if there is a legitimate nondiscriminatory or non-retaliatory reason to let you go. If your pre-leave job performance was poor, your company suddenly downsizes, or your leave must extend beyond the time allowed under FMLA, your employer may be able to lawfully terminate you.

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