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Medical leave policies call for empathy, consistencyCreativity also plays role in certain situations

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What does a company do when an employee needs several weeks off to recuperate from an illness or injury? Or several months? Or even longer?

You hear the horror stories from time to time: A sales rep falls off his roof and undergoes multiple surgeries. A shop supervisor's spouse is injured in a car crash and needs round-the-clock care. An assistant manager's child goes missing.

No matter the situation, however, the work still needs to go on. And that can present some major challenges for bosses.

“Companies usually want to do the right thing and take care of their employees,” says Karen A. Young, president of HR Resolutions in Lower Paxton Township. “But they need to have policies in place that say, 'If this extraordinary situation comes up, this is how we're going to handle it.'”


Most organizations have leave policies covering a wide range of scenarios, Young says: short- and long-term, paid and unpaid, medical and personal. But one of the most commonly used these days is the FMLA.

The Family and Medical Leave Act was created by Congress in 1993 to give eligible employees — at companies with more than 50 workers — up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year for the employee's serious health condition, the birth or adoption of a child, or the need to care for an ill or injured family member. While the employee is off, the company must continue paying the employee's health insurance. Also, when the employee is ready to come back, he or she must be given their original job or an equivalent job with the same pay and benefits.

Beyond FMLA

But what if a worker needs more than 12 weeks? And what if the company is too small to be covered by FMLA?

“It really depends on the company culture,” says Dennis Luchey, director of benefits at Lititz-based Susquehanna Bank. “I know of one guy who was hired at a company that gives its workers up to a year of unpaid leave. He'd been there for less than six weeks when he became ill and was out for over six months. So they were incredibly generous.”

It doesn't always go so smoothly, Young says: “I had a client with an employee whose child was killed in a car accident. And even though we didn't have to offer an FMLA, because the company wasn't big enough, we gave her the same 12 weeks that an FMLA offers. Unfortunately, after her leave was up, she wasn't making an effort to come back to work. It was a horrible situation, and we had some difficult conversations about it. Fortunately, it finally gave her the impetus to return.”

Drawing the line

“You don't want to be the bad guy,” Young says. “But at some point you have to say, 'We really need you to come back, and if you can't, that's OK, but we're a business, and we need to move forward.'”

Lora Lebo, proprietor of Big Bold Ideas, an HR consulting firm in Lebanon, says the harsh reality is that “the employer has every right to terminate you if you can't come back.”

“If it's not an FMLA situation and giving you several weeks of unpaid leave is going to hurt their bottom line, then they have to think about the needs of the business,” she said.

Sage Schott-Reed, a veteran HR professional who operates the Assessment Network in Lebanon, says dismissals frequently happen for this reason.

“I encourage employers to give their workers an extra week of unpaid leave so they can get all their ducks in a row and hopefully come back to work,” she says. “But if they can't, employers can at least tell the worker to reapply for the job when they're able.”

Getting creative, being consistent

Andy Sholly, past president of the Human Resource Professionals of Central Pennsylvania, says companies can also “get creative” and allow an employee who's been on leave to work a flexible schedule until they're back full time. The key, he says, is to be consistent.

“You have to treat everybody fairly, and the best way to do that is with company policies,” he says. “Spell out the leave in the employee handbook.”

Also, since a lengthy unpaid leave can cause a tremendous financial burden for workers, he says, many employers purchase short-term disability insurance so employees can still get a paycheck. Another solution is to start a “leave bank” so an employee's co-workers can donate some of their accrued time off and help their friend get through the rough spot.

“It pains HR people to see their co-workers going through terrible situations,” says Sholly. “We want to do as much as we can, and at the same time we have to be fair and consistent. So we do our best.” 

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Larry Portzline

Larry Portzline

Larry Portzline covers York County, nonprofits, workforce and education. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at larryp@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @CPBJLarryP. Circle Larry Portzline on .

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