Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Guide

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Guide

destructive force

Drug and alcohol addiction is a destructive force that impacts people all around the world. If you’ve ever dealt with substance abuse, or if you’ve watched a loved one struggle with it, you understand the severity and totality with which this disease can affect a person’s entire world. When someone is trapped in the clutches of addiction, everything can be affected – their health, their friendships, and their career.

But addiction doesn’t have to destroy everything in a person’s life. In fact, many people find freedom and recovery every day. A stable life, including a support system and a steady job, is essential to a healthy recovery. And thanks to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), individuals who seek out treatment for substance abuse can get the treatment they need and still have a job to come back to.

Addiction in the United States

According to the Open Society Foundations’ publication, Defining the Addiction Treatment Gap, alcohol and drug addiction affects approximately 23.5 million Americans. However, only 2.6 million (about one in 10) of these people will receive the treatment they need to attain and maintain their sobriety.

treatment gap

What causes this tremendous “treatment gap”?

The answer depends on many factors.

First, many people don’t receive addiction treatment because they don’t feel they need it. As the popular 12-Step program explains, the first step to recovery is to admit that one’s life has become unmanageable due to drug or alcohol abuse. Until an individual realizes that they have a problem – either by their own admission or at the urging of their loved ones – the idea of getting treatment may never even cross their mind.

Even if an individual does want to receive treatment for substance abuse, many obstacles can stand in the way of the help they need. They may not have the funds available to enter a private treatment facility. They may not have family or friends close by who can take care of their children or pets. If they are working, they may fear that their employer will fire them for getting treatment, leaving them in financial straits once they become sober.

All these issues can impede a person’s journey to recovery, but they don’t have to. In fact, thanks to United States federal laws like FMLA, individuals struggling with addiction can get treatment and keep their jobs.

What Is the FMLA?

The Family Medical Leave Act is a federal law that was passed by President Clinton in 1993. The law aimed “to balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families” by providing Americans with job stability and access to employer-provided healthcare during times of personal or family health crises.

Individuals may receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave through the FMLA for a variety of reasons, including:

  • The birth of an employee’s baby

  • Placement of an adoptive or foster child with an employee

  • Caring for a seriously ill immediate family member, such as a spouse, child, or parent

  • Caring for an employee’s own heath during a serious illness

Addiction is, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, a complicated disease that affects a person physically, mentally, and emotionally. Because of this, employees seeking addiction treatment are protected from job loss under the FMLA. For individuals suffering from addiction, those 12 weeks of medical leave can be the beginning of a journey toward recovery, and that in turn can yield many benefits for themselves and their employer.

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Who Is Eligible?

If you are living with drug and alcohol addiction, it is critically important that you get the help you need as soon as possible. With a little dedication and a strong support network, anyone can achieve sobriety. But how do you know if you’re covered by the FMLA?

An individual is eligible for medical leave if they:
  • Work for a covered employer

  • Have worked for their employer for 12 months or more (non-consecutively)

  • Have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months preceding their medical leave

  • Work in an area where their employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles

Now, that first point may give more than a few people pause. What exactly is a “covered employer,” and what do you do if your office isn’t one? Don’t worry – the FMLA is broad enough to include most employers, except for some elected officials.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a covered employer is:

Any private-sector employer with 50 or more employees working 20 or more weeks each year

Any local, state, or federal government agency

Any public or private elementary or secondary school

If an individual’s employment status meets these requirements, and they need to take time to enter substance abuse treatment, the FMLA ensures that they will have a job waiting for them when they return.

The FMLA and the ADA

fmla ada same opportunities

Just as the FMLA was designed to give American workers more home-life balance, the Americans with Disabilities Act was designed to give disabled American workers the same opportunities as those without disabilities. Thanks to the ADA, employers cannot discriminate against potential workers with disabilities, and they are required by law to provide these individuals with reasonable accommodations so they can do their work.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, alcoholism and drug addiction are considered disabilities under the ADA. This consideration prevents employers from discriminating against recovering addicts or alcoholics. However, addiction is also considered a special case under the ADA.

Unlike other disabilities, where an employer would have to accommodate the employee, individuals recovering from substance abuse are only protected from discrimination during the hiring process. An employer does have the right to discipline or terminate an employee if their addiction interferes with the essential functions of the job, or if they resume using the addictive substance.

An Employer’s Role in Treatment

Some employers may look at the brass tacks of the FMLA and balk (12 whole weeks of leave?!), but the act helps to promote productivity in the workplace and a healthier workforce. After all, a 1996 report in the Social Science Journal, cited by the United States Commission on Civil Rights, asserted that as many as 25 percent of Americans sometimes come to work under the influence of alcohol or an illicit drug.

By adhering to the FMLA and giving employees the chance to take care of themselves and their sobriety, an employer may see their office morale and productivity boost, and they’ll be helping to save an employee’s life in the process. However, this doesn’t mean an employer must forgive all transgressions from an employee who is using drugs. The Huffington Post suggests that employers draft a Return to Work agreement for employees entering treatment, which outlines the behavioral and performance expectations for the employee after they get sober.

12 WEEKS OF UNPAID LEAVE

The FMLA has made it possible for thousands of Americans to take care of their health and the health of their families with the knowledge that their job is secure. However, it is important to note that the FMLA only provides employees with 12 weeks of unpaid leave; individuals who take leave will have to account for this time through other means of income.

It is also important to note that neither the FMLA or the ADA cover individuals who are currently using drugs. If an individual’s addiction interferes with their ability to do their job, it is within an employer’s rights to terminate the person. This is precisely why eligible individuals suffering from substance abuse issues should use their FMLA-allotted time to begin their recovery journey. If they don’t, their addiction may end up costing them their job or worse.

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Addiction Stigma and the Need for Treatment

need for treatment

The FMLA is a great part of a larger societal effort to destigmatize addiction. As the American Society of Addiction Magazine points out, the cultural lexicon surrounding addiction tends to be dismissive and discouraging; words like junkie or crackhead demonize the individual instead of seeing them for who they are – a person struggling with a disorder.

Addiction is, as mentioned, a complex and difficult disease that affects the body and the mind. Individuals living with this condition deserve a chance to gain the tools necessary to overcome their substance abuse issues. Recovery is possible, but it requires assistance from friends, family, and even coworkers and employers. Thanks to the FMLA and the ADA, people around the country can begin their recovery and return to their jobs without judgement or stigma. For some, that can make all the difference.