How to handle extended illness when your company has no leave policy?
March 3, 2015 3:50 PM   Subscribe

I wrote this question at the beginning of February about how bad my mental health had gotten. Since then, I went to the ER and was voluntarily hospitalized in an inpatient psych unit for a week - I just got out on Wednesday. Since then I've been in a partial hospitalization program, which may go on for another 2-4 weeks. My office has told me that they want me to do everything I need to do to take care of myself and get better, but the official policies are not backing that up. How do I manage my time off?

I work for a non-profit in New York State that is small enough (under 50 employees) that I don't qualify for FMLA. When I asked my HR director about the leave policy, they basically indicated that I could use all of my paid time off. And that was pretty much it. I have about 30 days off for the year, and have already used about half of that. And by the time I come back from the program, I'll have used all of it, if not more than my entire year's worth of PTO. They said that short term disability is available, but that it only pays $170 a week, which is not remotely enough to support the household. I'm currently the sole breadwinner and don't have much short term savings left, and I'm really reluctant to dip into my retirement savings - I have a decent amount, but not really what I should by this age.

Anyway, I am terribly stressed at the idea of having to go through the rest of the year without a single sick day or a single vacation day. I just don't think I could do that without breaking down again. I am terrified at the idea of having to take unpaid time off, especially since I imagine I would still have to somehow pay my share of medical insurance premiums.

All of this anxiety over work is also really getting in the way of treatment - according to my providers, my anxiety and depression are quite serious, and they've seen my moods continue to be quite unstable since I started last week. I'm finally realizing that I need to really buckle down and focus on recovery, but this worry about work is hindering me so much.

The last I left things with my office was that I was in this program, and that I would let them know once I had a better idea how much more time I would need. I may need another 2-3 weeks easily, and mentally I can't handle working from home after the program - I really need those weeks to heal. But I have no idea what to propose or suggest to my office for how to handle those weeks, especially without FMLA eligibility.

Has anyone been in a similar situation before, or have experience with this on the employer end? How do I take off the time I need to get better without ruining my relationship with my workplace? What is a reasonable request regarding time off for the rest of the year? I should email the HR director tonight or tomorrow to follow up - what would you ask for and how would you say it? Any suggestions at all would be so helpful.
posted by Neely O'Hara to Work & Money (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you may not be aware that FMLA is unpaid leave anyway? All it does is require that a company not fire/demote you if you take unpaid time for certain protected reasons.

Work giving you additional *paid* time off is extremely unlikely. That said, you can ask -- but be prepared for the answer to be no. If your office is good, though, it sounds like they'd be willing to let you take a leave of absence. The offer of short term disability may be your best bet for what's reasonable to ask for from your office. Ask explicitly about the health insurance premiums, and do what you need to do to continue getting health insurance.

If you can't work because of your depression, you can also apply for SSI, but that process is notoriously difficult and takes a long time.

If you have a support system (friends/family), now's the time to use it, as well as seeing if there are hard decisions you can make about your budget and housing situation that would ease rather than exacerbate your stress. I'm very sorry that you're going through this. The way our country handles problems like this is horrible and demoralizing. Good luck.
posted by brainmouse at 4:03 PM on March 3, 2015 [6 favorites]

This does sound like a really stressful thing to have to deal with on top of taking care of yourself. Does your workplace allow employees to donate their excess leave to other employees? There is something like that at my place of employment, but I have never investigated it. I just see announcements from time to time on our intranet from people asking for donations of leave.
posted by ezust at 4:05 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have no idea if this is a thing where you work, but I know someone who had a very lengthy medical crisis and coworkers donated some of their leave to help cover it. You could ask what sorts of creative options there are in that regard. (However, this was a federal job.)

When I had a full time job, they sometimes had incentives for "If you do blah, you qualify for 2 hours of time off." As much as possible, I earned those extra hours off and it really helped give me flexibility that year. (However, this was a large company, so I don't know if that helps you.)

They said that short term disability is available, but that it only pays $170 a week, which is not remotely enough to support the household. Any suggestions at all would be so helpful.

I have a serious medical condition that has dragged on for years and I ultimately concluded that a regular job was just not going to work for me and I left. I now do freelance work when I am well enough, but that means the income is variable and not yet very high and I stress a lot about that. But I have loads of experience making sure I and my sons eat and get our basic needs met in spite of very serious financial challenges. Knowing that we are going to eat really makes a big difference in my ability to cope.

Some things you can start looking into to make sure you are going to be as okay as possible through the end of the year:

Local food banks/pantries, soup kitchens, and other emergency food aid resources.

Food stamps.

Thrift stores to help cover basics like clothing on the cheap.

Programs that may be willing to pay your rent once or pay your electric bill or provider other emergency aid.

As much as possible, see if you can't raise the resources you need rather than bleed your retirement. I have found that scrambling to get the resources I need is often much more feasible than trying to focus and get paid work done. As I get healthier, I am more able to focus. Finding ways to meet my needs in the here and now has been a good experience and brings my stress levels down. My condition is medical, not a mental health issue, but it impacts my mental health and ... gradually resolving my issues is making me more mentally and emotionally stable as well.

best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 4:07 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

You might also inquire if they would be willing/able to give you advanced sick leave or PTO. If you left the company with a negative balance, then you would owe them money, but it may be a rule bending they could accommodate.

Best of luck.
posted by bookdragoness at 4:28 PM on March 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

- See if you can integrate short term disability with paid time off. In one (large) company that I am familiar with, if you are out sick more than a few days, then you qualify for short term disability and you can combine the disability payment with paid time off to make up your full salary for the time off. So if short term pays, say 20% of your usual take home, you would only use 32 hours (80%) of your time off each week you were out.
- You might be able to get by with less than your full paycheck. In a company where 75% time employees get full benefits, you might opt to go to 75% during your time off. Combined with part of the money coming from short term disability you could stretch your PTO (paid time off) days even further.
- Work with your family to lower your budget so you have a little slack. When you do go back full time, put aside a % of your salary to cover any time off without pay that you might need later in the year. How much money can you save if you cut back aggressively (now, before it is a crisis) knowing that in a year or less, when things are back to normal, you can add them back into the budget. Do the cutting now, save the difference, then, if you need to take some unpaid time off, you won't panic about the pay hit.
- Find out about long term disability, it usually pays better than short term but still just a % of your full time pay. It is less likely to be helpful but it may reduce your panic to know if, for example, after 3 months of short term disability, you can count on some more money to help make ends meet.
posted by metahawk at 4:33 PM on March 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Digging in to your retirement may be the best option for you right now. See if it's possible to take unpaid leave from your office, but to continue your health (and other, if any) benefits. That way you could finance your household with savings for now, continue healing, and continue necessary treatment.

The other thought is that a lot of partial hospitalization programs include social workers. They're usually overworked, but talk to them about whether they have any other ideas for you. They are professionals, and used to answering hard questions like yours.

Lastly, if you can't take PTO while keeping your benefits, would work be willing to let you "work from home" 30 hours a week? That would hopefully enable you to keep your health benefits, and if your office is sympathetic, they will know that you are unlikely to be able to actually work a full 30 hours due to treatment and recovery.

If there's an HR person for your work, you might try asking them if they have any ideas for you. But that would be my last line of inquiry, as work HR is, indeed, working for your employer, not you.
posted by ldthomps at 6:10 PM on March 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

You mentioned that you're the sole breadwinner in your house at the moment - if you have a partner who is not working, can they get some work (even temporary work) to help fill the gap? This may enable you to take some unpaid or part-paid leave without it destroying your budget. I can hear your panic at the idea of going through the rest of the year without getting sick or taking any time off, so I suspect that even a little bit of breathing room might make a big difference to your level of stress.
posted by Cheese Monster at 6:13 PM on March 3, 2015 [4 favorites]

Try to think about these two concepts separately: job-protected time off from your job; income.

Time off: Your employer is covered by the ADA, and your psychiatric condition is a disability as defined by the ADA. Time off from working for treatment and recovery, such as a leave of absence, or periodic days off, are a form of reasonable accommodation. Your employer is required to provide such reasonable accommodations, unless there is an undue hardship. (It's a little more complicated than that, but true enough to start your thinking.) So, just because you use all of your PTO does *not* mean that you can't get more time off. You can. It's considered a reasonable accommodation. It may be unpaid time off, but it's still available to you.

Income: You have some PTO days -- that is a form of income. You live in New York State, so you are likely to have access to disability benefits through the state program. It sounds like you may have a second type of disability benefit, short-term disability that supplements the state program. (It's hard to tell -- it may be that the HR person was referring to the state program.)

None of this is easy, but some of your anxiety is not warranted. Your right to time off as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA serves much the same function as the FMLA.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:27 PM on March 3, 2015

Everybody responding here is assuming your company won't help you, which is not necessarily the case. Please talk with your boss. In a small organisation, particularly a non-profit, your boss may have the discretion to grant you paid time off, off the books.

I say that because I've done it myself. A guy who worked for me once asked for an indefinite period of time off because he needed to settle his father's affairs after his father died unexpectedly. I told him to take what he needed -- I meant it, and he did. We just kept paying him while he took care of his family situation. It cost us money but I was okay with that, and he was a super-loyal employee for years afterwards.

I've had many experiences in which well-meaning but bureaucratic HR people applied "rules" to people like you, where the person's actual manager wanted things handled more generously. I'm not saying that's what's happening to you, but it may be. I think it's worth a shot to go to your boss and say something like "I need to be partially off for the next 2-4 weeks. I can't afford to take unpaid time, and I am afraid to take any more sick or vacation time, because I may need it later. Do you think I could take off this period I need, off the books? I would of course work extra hard once I'm back, and hope to make up what was lost."

Your boss may say no, but it's worth you asking.
posted by Susan PG at 2:10 PM on March 4, 2015

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