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Taking Time Off to Care for a Sick Relative

Have you noticed that people seem to be living longer these days? Many of us have parents in their 80s and 90s who are able to function semi-independently, but who sometimes need help with the effects of chronic illnesses. With stressful full time jobs, adult children are often faced with having to make a choice between keeping a job and caring for an invalid parent.

Thankfully, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees a right to twelve work weeks of leave "[i]n order to care for the spouse, or a son, daughter, or parent, of the employee, if such spouse, son, daughter, or parent has a serious health condition." But how do you define "care"? Does taking an ill parent on a long awaited vacation qualify as care?

Beverly Ballard worked for the Chicago Park District, and also cared for her mother, Sarah, who had congestive heart failure and was terminally ill. Sarah said had always wanted to take a family trip to Las Vegas. A social worker was able to secure funding from the Fairygodmother Foundation, a nonprofit that facilitated these sorts of opportunities for terminally ill adults. The six day trip was scheduled for January 2008 and Beverly requested an unpaid leave to accompany Sarah, who of course could not go alone. The request was denied, but Beverly went on the trip, thinking that it had been granted. A few months later, she was terminated. Beverly sued under the FMLA.

Her employer claimed the FMLA didn't apply, since Beverly was caring for her mother on vacation, not at home, and that there was no ongoing medical treatment during the trip. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Beverly (Ballard v. Chicago Park District, No. 13-1445 (7th Cir. Jan. 28, 2014). It concluded that "care" is not limited to medical treatment, but also can include psychological comfort and reassurance without any geographical limitation, and also basic medical, hygienic, and nutritional needs not necessarily associated with ongoing medical procedures.

Although the courts are divided on this subject, it is reassuring that at least one court has recognized the real world definition of "care", and not an overly legalistic one. If you need time off to care for a sick parent, you (and your parent) deserve it!

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