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Tending a sick parent? This law can help

Dear Evil HR Lady,

My mom is very sick. She is 88 and due to her condition is unable to care for herself. My siblings and I are going to each care for her in 90-day shifts. I approached my employer about [changing my schedule] under the Family and Medical Leave Act while I care for Mama. I would be in on time to work each day, but would need an extended lunch to be able to feed her lunch and attend to any hygiene needs. In addition, I might need to take her to doctor's appointments.

I am currently a salaried employee. My employer suggested I transition to an hourly employee instead of using the FMLA. This would enable me to keep my accrued vacation time, but my accrual rate will be decreased going forward and I'll pay more for health insurance. What should I do?

First, I wish you and your siblings well in caring for your mother. This is a situation that many people must contend with or eventually face. It's tough to navigate emotionally, physically and professionally. 

You are eligible for the FMLA both as a salaried and an hourly employee. The paranoid side of me thinks that your boss thinks that by switching you to hourly, he's not subject to the law. This is false. As long as you have worked at your employer for more than a year, there are 50 or more employees in the area, and you've put in at least 1,250 hours in the past year, you're eligible for FMLA benefits regardless of whether your are salaried or hourly.

The other thing I suspect your boss is not considering is that as an hourly employee if you work more than 40 hours in any given week (or in some areas, more than eight hours in a day) you'll be eligible for overtime. In fact, "eligible" doesn't convey the seriousness of this: If you work more than 40 hours in a week, your company is required by law to pay you time and a half for any hours over 40. End of story.

Meanwhile, if you are a "salaried exempt" worker, your boss isn't required to deduct vacation or other paid time off from your bank if you take an extra long lunch to help your mom. It may be company policy, but it's not required by law. Many companies just consider actions like that to be part of the entire package of exemption. In other words, employers are legally entitled to take time away, but they don't have to.

And that's where I'd start. If you're only going to need a short period of time off each day, I'd approach your boss about not deducting any time for your extended lunch hour. Present a plan for how you'll accomplish all your work each day, which may include staying late or working for an hour in the evening. It makes a lot more sense than docking your vacation bank in half-hour increments, or switching you to hourly status. This may not be practical if by "long lunch" you mean three hours and by "doctor's appointments" you mean four hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while she goes to dialysis. But if it means an extra hour at lunch and a monthly doctor's appointment, this is certainly the rational way to go.

No matter what, fill out the FMLA paperwork and get everything signed and certified by the proper doctors, bosses and HR people. Every hour you take off, paid or unpaid, needs to be recorded. Make sure you follow the letter of the law. The FMLA offers you protection, and the last thing you want to do is to unwittingly give that up.

If it comes down to it, the choice really teeters on the vacation time versus the increase in health insurance costs. (Although your insurance costs shouldn't drop based on how your paycheck is calculated, so check on that with your benefits person in HR.) You may feel it's more valuable to save vacation for when you have some down time and where your brother is taking care of your mom than it is to pay less for health insurance.

Either option that you've laid out is viable, but go ask your boss about simply making up the work. It's the best path that I can see.