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Can family responsibilities get you fired?

By Kathryn Tuggle/

NEW YORK - Although most working parents do a great job balancing family commitments and work responsibilities, for others it's a constant struggle. According to the Bright Horizons Modern Family Index, nearly half -- 48 percent -- of all working parents fear their family obligations could get them fired. What are the realities? Here's a look at what's normal for working parents and what might cost you your job.

Missing work to care for a sick family member

If you're dealing with a serious health condition of a child or immediate family member, the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Your employer must give you your job back if you return to work when those 12 weeks are up, says employment attorney Christina Stoneburner with Fox Rothschild Stoneburner. To qualify for FMLA, you must have worked for at least one year for an employer that has 50 or more employees.

"The issue of caring for an elderly parent or a family member with a serious illness is more common than you might think. While having a family isn't a protected class, FMLA offers some protection for people when their spouse, child or parent is facing a severe health issue," Stoneburner says.

With that said, FMLA won't help you if you're taking care of a family member with the sniffles or a sore throat.

"There is no federal law that mandates employers give consideration to employees with family responsibilities," she says. "If your child has a cold, you'll need to take a vacation day or work from home if that's an option for you."

Last-minute "work from home" requests

If your employer offers the ability to work from home on occasion, taking too much advantage of it can send up red flags to your managers.

"These arrangements really need to be set up in advance," Stoneburner says. "Don't call in on Thursday to say you are going to work from home on Friday."

If you know your desired work-from-home schedule will be varied -- the first Monday of every week and the third Wednesday, for example -- don't be afraid to ask for that schedule up front. Employers like to have more notice so they can plan.

"Just go ahead and put it all out there. Be realistic about what you need from the beginning," she says. "If you keep going back asking for different days or a different arrangement, it will look like you're just nickeling-and-diming them."

A pattern of calling in "sick" at certain times

It's all about the pattern, Stoneburner says. If you consistently call in "sick" the day before or the day after a planned vacation, or every Friday when the weather is nice, you could risk disciplinary action from your employer.

"They know what's going on. They know you just wanted to extend your vacation or you just wanted a long weekend or wanted to go to the beach," she says. "At the end of the year, when they are looking at all the days you took, they're going to wake up to the fact that they have an attendance problem."

Most employers will issue a warning if you take more than three to five days over your allotted paid time off for the year. If you take between five and 10 more days than you're allotted, more serious action -- including dismissal -- could be taken.

Taking advantage of flexible arrangements

Some employees become a little too comfortable with their flexible work schedules and start making it work only for them, not their employer. If you established that you'd be leaving early on Wednesdays but now you're leaving early on Mondays and Wednesdays, or occasionally on Thursdays, that's a problem.

"You can't just switch it around to whatever day suits you. The reason your employer was able to accommodate your flexible schedule is because it was predictable. Once it's no longer predictable, it's no longer convenient. They have to know who is in the office on what days at what times," she says.

Not being prepared for your child's school holidays

The employee who has no backup plan in place for school holidays or snow days is a frustrating one, Stoneburner says.

"This one can be really trying for employers. If you have to stay home every time school gets canceled, that's crazy. You don't have a backup plan? You don't have any other day-care option? You have to be prepared."

Bringing your kids to the office

Whether or not your children are welcome in the office depends entirely on your employer. If you don't know that your children would be welcome, don't show up with them unannounced, she explains.

"Some employers are very flexible," she says. "If you have well-behaved children, there may not be a problem with them sitting in a conference room all day. But if they're going to run up and down the halls or if your office just isn't a good place for kids, then take a vacation day and stay home with them."

If you're out of vacation days, in some cases it's better to take an unpaid day and stay home with your kids than it is to bring them into the office. Also, keep in mind that just because you've seen your boss' children at the office from time to time doesn't mean it's OK for you to bring yours.

"If you bring your child in every time school is closed, people will start to say, 'Wait a minute, why are your children here again?'"

Having frequent unexcused absences

Tolerance for unexcused absences -- absences without a doctor's note or a call to say you won't be coming in -- varies widely by employer. In most cases, however, five to eight unexcused absences could end your job, Stoneburner says.

"I tend to see initial disciplinary warnings after four unexcused absences," she says. "After five to eight absences, you could be terminated."

If you're unclear as to what an "unexcused" absence entails, check your company's policy. Prearranged vacation days never fall into this category.

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