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Home  > Article

Sick Leave Smarts

By Aimee Whitenack

Signing bonuses, window views, and several weeks' vacation may be flashier benefits, but you shouldn't overlook disability insurance when shopping around for a job. What happens if you flip over your bicycle handlebars or are diagnosed with a serious illness and have to miss work? Will you lose your job? Will you still get paid? The key, we've learned, is to ask.

Disability insurance should not be a forgotten benefit when you're shopping around for a job.

Sure, most young job seekers are worried about benefits and compensation. We value money, vacation time, and even "soft" benefits like flex-time. But when is the last time you heard someone come home from a job interview saying, "Wow, they really have a great short-term disability plan!"

While many of us are lucky not to have major health concerns, that doesn't excuse us for being ignorant on the subject of disability insurance. Depending on your company's policy-or lack thereof-a serious accident or illness could put you at risk of losing some or all of your salary, and even your job.

Once upon a time
Eric Hansen*, 24, was out of work for seven weeks while he was recovering from mono. He was aware that his company, a Boston mutual fund firm, had both a short- and long-term benefits policy (the terms were mentioned during training), but he had little idea what these policies truly meant or how they worked. At first, Hansen's manager required Hansen to call in sick every morning before 9 a.m. "They were kind of accommodating but kind of not cool," he remembers.

When Hansen returned to work, he was informed that he would not, in fact, be paid for his sick leave. The company's policy stated that bed rest and over-the-counter medicine did not suffice as treatment for an employee's illness. Hansen's doctor wrote a letter explaining the seriousness of the illness and, in the end, the company agreed to pay. Hansen says he learned the hard way to document an illness by scheduling follow-up appointments with a doctor. "Get everything on paper in case you run into a problem like I did," he advises.

The law
The Family and Medical Leave Act - which applies to companies and organizations with 50 or more employees-ensures that employees who are unable to work for specified family or medical reasons are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a six-month period. You have to have worked for your employer for at least 12 months and at least 1,250 hours to be eligible, however, and the employer is not required to pay any part of your salary during your absence. In other words, the legislation simply ensures that you will not be fired or demoted due to your absence.

Most large companies have provisions in place that work in conjunction with the FMLA. Short-term disability policies generally pay anywhere from 60 percent to 100 percent of your salary for three to six months (starting the first day after an accident or the eighth day after an illness is diagnosed).

Once the short-term disability insurance runs out, long-term disability takes its place, guaranteeing that employees will receive some set percentage of their salary for the remainder of their time away from work (until you are 65 and eligible for Social Security-but we hope you're not out of work for that long). While the FMLA applies both when employees themselves are sick and when their family members are ill or injured, most short- and long-term disability policies only cover the individual employee.

Start-up a policy
Many start-up companies don't offer short- and long-term disability at all. Start-ups generally have younger employees-and founders-who don't have the same benefits concerns as older employees. Often, founders haven't put in place a structured disability program because they haven't thought about it, or because it's considered a low priority.

When push comes to shove, companies with less than 50 employees have no legal obligation to retain the job of an employee with an extended absence (this includes maternity leave). Furthermore, short-term disability insurance is expensive, and small companies argue that they simply can't afford it.

What's really at stake
Anne Marie Burns was a typical twentysomething with a vague knowledge of her company's sick leave policy-until she was diagnosed with cancer in 1995. "If you're hit with something pretty major like I was, you're concerned about your job and whether you're going to be able to keep your job," she says.

Burns worked for a university at the time, and though the university did, in fact, have a set policy, her immediate manager never disclosed her condition or her absences to the HR department. She missed months of work while she was being treated, though she worked from the hospital and came into the office when she could. "I didn't have to worry about keeping my job or salary. Everything stayed in place, which is definitely not the normal circumstance."

Had her employer not been so understanding, Burns would've been without a salary for much of the year that she was undergoing treatment-at the same time she was faced with mounting medical bills. Furthermore, anyone else in this position who had no long-term disability coverage could lose their job and insurance coverage altogether. Today, Burns is healthy, grateful to her manager, and well-versed in her current company's disability policies.

So what can you do? During an interview (specifically, during the negotiation phase, when benefits are on the table), ask about short- and long-term disability policies. If policies are not yet in place, but you are informed, concerned, and encouraging, perhaps you will instigate action. If a time comes when you're unexpectedly banged up or laid up, we promise, you'll be thankful.

*Name has been changed.

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