It might be the most common fear that keeps people out of rehabilitation from substance addiction. It’s not the fear of withdrawal, and it’s not worry about what they’ll face in the process of recovery. It’s the fear of losing their job.
Losing a career you love is a high price to pay for seeking help. Your job itself may include many activities you love and would regret not being able to do. You may have paid your dues to reach a certain level in your profession and would hate to have to start all over again because you needed to take time off for recovery.
Many of your most important social connections may be through your job, and you wonder what you would do if you could no longer be part of that cherished network. But don’t assume that going for inpatient treatment means permanently leaving a job you love.
What Is FMLA Leave, Who’s Eligible and What Rights Does It Grant Employees Who Need Addiction Recovery Help?
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) legally assures that employees have the opportunity to take time off on unpaid leave for serious family needs and medical reasons, including treatment for addiction. Covered employees can take job-protected leave for a total of 12 work weeks in any 12-month time period for treatment and recovery for themselves or close family members.1
To use FMLA, you must first find out if your company is covered and you are eligible by FMLA rules.
- To fall under FMLA as a covered employer, a private company must have at least 50 employees working at locations within 75 miles of each other. Government agencies and public schools are all covered employers.
- To be considered an eligible employee, you must also have worked at least 12 months at a covered employer. You can work as few as 24 hours per week within that year and be considered eligible for FMLA.1
How Do I Request FMLA Leave for Time in Treatment?
Once you know you’re eligible, you need to go through your company’s FMLA application process to get approved. You can apply for FMLA leave through the human resources department or through your union representative if you have one, and your reason for applying for FMLA should be considered confidential. You don’t have to tell your employer you’re getting treatment for substance addiction, but you do have to give them enough information from your doctor to explain that you cannot be at work. Without enough information, the company may not approve FMLA.
Companies would rather not lose a good employee because of treatment for a chronic health condition, so don’t let embarrassment or fear hold you back from therapy that could help you do your job better and even save your life.
The US Department of Labor offers some guidance for those who think they might benefit from FMLA for addiction treatment:
“Treatment for substance abuse may be a serious health condition if the conditions for inpatient care and/or continuing treatment are met. FMLA leave may only be taken for substance abuse treatment provided by a healthcare provider or by a provider of healthcare services on referral by a healthcare provider. Absence because of the employee’s use of the substance, rather than for treatment, does not qualify for FMLA leave.
“The employer may not take action against the employee because the employee has exercised his or her right to take FMLA leave for substance abuse treatment. However, if the employer has an established policy, applied in a non-discriminatory manner, that has been communicated to all employees, and that provides under certain circumstances an employee may be terminated for substance abuse, then pursuant to that policy the employee may be terminated regardless of whether he or she is presently taking FMLA leave.”3
That last line means a covered company may still be able to fire an employee on FMLA leave for substance use if the employee knew about a zero tolerance policy or similar rule against abusing substances in the workplace and used anyway. One main reason companies have rules like this is to keep employees from working while impaired and posing a danger to themselves and others. If your company has a policy that says they can terminate you for using substances on the job, it might help to be upfront and let them know the reason you are requesting leave is to get help so you won’t break this rule.
Although you don’t get paid during FMLA leave, paid sick days, vacation days or personal days could be used. You employer may require you to use some of your vacation days during FMLA leave. If you have an insurance account that pays for this sort of leave, you may be eligible to use it. Be sure to fill out all required forms and return them on time. Give as much advance notice as possible so your employer can arrange to cover your work duties while you are out.
Coming Back to Work After FMLA Leave
The FMLA requires your employer to continue your health insurance coverage during leave as you continue to pay your usual premium. If you’re well enough to return to work after your 12 weeks of leave ends, your company should place you back in the same job or one very similar to it. The idea is to reduce the stress of recovery and the fear of discrimination when it comes to future promotions.
When you return, you should also be able to take time off for counseling or group meetings to sustain your recovery. However, you are expected to attend these sessions during hours that are the least disruptive to your work day. If you return before your 12 weeks of FMLA leave is up, you may return part-time to transition back into your work or if you need to continue counseling on an outpatient basis.
Once you’ve used your full 12 weeks of leave, you must return to work on the same time schedule you originally followed.4 If your employer is willing to change your job status to part-time or let you work from home, that would be an agreement between your two parties made outside FMLA.
Calling to speak with a Skywood admissions coordinator is a good first step to ask any questions you have about going to treatment and preparing for a new life in recovery.
By Pat Matuszak
2 Jordan, DeAnna. “Should You Tell Your Employer You Have a Substance Abuse Problem?” US News & World Report, January 20, 2017.
3 “Serious Health Condition – Leave for Treatment of Substance Abuse.” US Department of Labor, Accessed December 28, 2017.
4 “Need Time? The Employee’s Guide to the FMLA.” US Department of Labor, June 2015.