How to use FMLA leave for chronic illness

In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. Approximately 20% of Americans use FMLA to nurture new spawn (maternity or paternity leave), but most of Americans use FMLA because of health problems.

I prefer to call FMLA the “F*ck My Life Act.”

I applied for FMLA almost a year before my MCAS diagnosis. In April 2015, I was struggling to walk, lift my arms, and digest food. I asked my human resources manager about FMLA and she emailed me a form to be filled out by my doctor. The form asked for a description of my medical condition and the expected duration of the condition, treatment, and recovery.

I wanted to write:

No damn clue. I think I am dying. Please keep paying me though.

My rheumatologist recommended I take two weeks of FMLA to rest and recover, but I refused. Somehow, I knew I would not recover. I knew would need to budget my FMLA time, because once FMLA time runs out, you can be fired if you miss work.

My rheumatologist wrote:

“3 days per episode, every 2 weeks. Needing monthly doctor visits. Expecting to get symptoms controlled in 3 months.”

HAHAHAHAHAHA.

Instead, I only took 78 hours, almost 2 weeks, of FMLA time over the next 3 months. I endured two colonoscopies and two MRIs, and I cried most nights from pain and fatigue.

In July, my primary care doctor filled out a new FMLA form:

“Possible autoimmune disease. Expected duration unknown at this time, possibly lifelong. Unknown, intermittent, unpredictable treatment schedule at this time. 4-8 hours at 1-5 episodes per week for 12 months.”

Over the next year, I took 295 hours, more than 7 weeks, of FMLA time. During this time, I was diagnosed with MCAS and began treatment. For a while, I scheduled FMLA time on Wednesdays to recover, while I tried to learn about my disease and try new medications.

In 2016, it was much easier to describe my medical condition. My mast cell specialist wrote:

“Diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome. Lifetime duration. Intermittent, unpredictable physical limitations. Anaphylaxis, tachycardia, nausea, and vomiting.”

However, the duration of treatment, recovery, and flare-ups was still impossible to predict. I wanted to write:

My mast cells do what they want when they want, okay? I have no control over this nightmare. Be nice to me.

Instead my mast cell specialist wrote:

“1-8 hours per day, 1-5 days per week, 12 weeks.”

… which is basically the professional way of saying, “No damn clue.”

Since 2015, I have taken an average of 200 hours, or 5 weeks, of FMLA time per year. On average, I use about 5 hours of FMLA time per week. FMLA provides up to 12 weeks, but I use my time as sparingly as my body can tolerate, in case I need a major surgery or have a complication.

The best part of FMLA, aside from not losing my job, is not having to explain myself when MCAS makes me sick. I don’t have to take a picture of my rash for proof or contemplate telling my boss that I am late because I am pooping my guts out. My paperwork allows me to skip the details. I just email my boss, “I need to use FMLA time for the remainder of the day.”

The worst part is nobody seems to understand the terror of having to budget your FMLA time for an unpredictable condition. If I run out of FMLA time, I can lose my job. If I lose my job, I lose my health care, and likely my home. My mast cells don’t give a shit. Sometimes doctors don’t even give a shit. Remember how it took months for doctors to agree to an epidural blood patch for my CSF leak? I went to work with a hole in my head, because I couldn’t afford to use three months of FMLA time. I hate when my FMLA time is wasted because of bad medical care.

I also limit my FMLA time, because I have bills to pay. FMLA provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave. While I can use my paid time (sick and vacation) when I take unpaid FMLA time, my paid time is constantly running out. This is why I rarely take a day off of work for fun.

Although working with MCAS often feels like physical torture, I love my job and the benefits outweigh the negatives. I know I am lucky that FMLA and ADA accommodations allowed me to keep my job after my diagnosis.

Tips for using FMLA leave for chronic illness:

  • Read about FMLA eligibility. Unfortunately, not everyone qualifies.
  • Notify your employer (usually an HR manager) as soon as you realize you need FMLA leave.
  • Schedule an appointment with your doctor just to complete the FMLA paperwork. It usually takes the whole appointment. You will need to fill out this paperwork every year.
  • Draft responses to the paperwork to bring to your doctor appointment to ensure all vital information is included and to save time.
  • Emphasize the unpredictability of your chronic illness, if applicable.
  • Track your FMLA leave time.
  • Don’t call it “F*ck My Life leave” around your HR manager.

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