Asking for Sick Leave, Keeping Your Job

Photo: Sick on the Job: How to Tell Your Employer You Need to Go on Leave

When Erin Allen of Martinez, Calif. underwent surgery to remove a rare intestinal tumor, the last thing she wanted to worry about was keeping her job.

"My chances of survival ran around 20 to 25 percent," said Allen, who worked as an office manager for a large corporation at the time. "I lost three inches of intestines, a small portion of my stomach and some of my pancreas."

Although Allen's doctor had predicted she'd be recuperating six to eight weeks, complications kept her laid up for 10.

Unfortunately, Allen's boss, who'd only been with the company a few months, seemed less concerned with Allen's well-being than how soon she'd be back at her desk, Allen said.

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"During my hospital stay, he would call and ask me when I would be back to work and why it was taking so long," Allen said. "The day I went back to work, he informed me that I needed to start working 16 hours a day and weekends to get caught up."

Smelling the setup, Allen said she resigned before her boss had a chance to fire her. That way, she could still qualify for COBRA and keep her health insurance.

"It was a risk to quit without a backup plan," said Allen, who has since taken a part-time job with a real estate firm. "But if I had tried to work the hours the boss wanted, I don't think I would be here today."

Employer reactions to the news that you've fallen gravely ill or sustained a serious injury will of course vary. Likewise, the size and location of your employer can dictate how much legal protection you have should you require an extended leave or changes to your work schedule or job duties.

What you can control, however, is how -- and when -- you give your employer the necessary details of your medical condition.

Be Candid, Clear and Flexible

Cluing in your employer as soon as you can screams "considerate, responsible employee," said Kairol Rosenthal, a patient advocate and author of "Everything Changes: The Insider's Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s."

The bigger the heads-up you give about your scheduling needs, the easier it will be for your boss to accommodate you and find suitable backup for the hours, days or weeks you'll miss, said Rosenthal, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 27.

Make your request for time off or other accommodations as specific as possible. "I'm sick and need time off for my doctor's appointments" won't cut it, Rosenthal said.

Instead, say something like, "I've been diagnosed with cancer and need radiation treatment Monday through Friday for five weeks, which means I won't be able to start work until 10:30 a.m."

It's important to not view this as an adversarial process, said Scott I. Barer, an employment attorney in private practice in Woodland Hills, Calif.

"In a perfect world, an employer will work with you to come up with a game plan that will allow you to continue to perform your essential job functions," Barer said. Despite the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), "There's no hard and fast rule on what is and is not a reasonable accommodation."

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