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What Happens to Your Job if You Get a Terrible, Long-Term Illness?

There are laws that protect you… but only for so long. ‘MURICA!

When the worst of the worst happens to you, what happens to your job? We’re talking about things like cancer, horrific injury or some other catastrophic, terrible turn of events that keeps you away from your job for the long term. In other words, the times when you need the money and the insurance the most.

Turns out there’s good news — but it’s not that good. There are some federal laws, and many states have laws to protect you as well. But they only protect so much, and they only last so long. We’re going to try and sort through all this complicatedness with the help of Amber Clayton, the director of the Knowledge Center for the Society of Human Resource Management, who knows just about everything there is to know about this.

So, what are all these laws you mentioned that might protect me?

Clayton lists several things that can, at the least, protect your employment (meaning you won’t lose your job over something personal and catastrophic), and maybe more importantly, your health insurance. These include the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), any state laws (for example, the New Jersey Family Leave Act, or the California Family Rights Act) and sometimes the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

As far as other things go, some employers offer short-term and long-term disability; then, of course, some people also tap into their vacation time or sick leave if they need to, or if they have any remaining (so don’t just blow it all on playing hooky). Some very generous companies might even have specific policies about long-term leave for situations like this.

So what do all those laws do for me?

The biggest and most important one is the FMLA. That gives you job-protected leave for 12 weeks, meaning employers must return you to the same or an equivalent position. Remember, though: This is unpaid leave! All it protects is your job to come back to, and your insurance in the meantime — if you get it through your employer. You won’t be cashing checks. Also, you have to qualify for FMLA: You have to have worked for the company for 12 months and 1,250 hours in a year, and the company must have at least 50 employees within 75 miles of the office.

Some states’ family leave laws — “a handful,” Clayton roughly estimates — are more generous than federal law. California’s Paid Family Leave Law, for example, entitles you to earn 55 percent of your salary (or up to $1,173 a week) for 12 weeks. Then there’s the ADA, which doesn’t always come into play, but basically states that if the company provides leave for one person, it must provide the same benefits for others in a similar situation — so it all depends on your company.

So basically, I’m probably not gonna get paid while I’m out?

Nope. Unless you’re in a place like California and you qualify for its state law, or if your company has some kind of generous policy plan for hardships, or you can cash in your vacation/sick days, you’re gonna have to dip into your savings, start passing the hat around, call up your rich uncle or sell your old baseball cards.

What about my insurance?

Typically, employees retain their insurance while they’re on FMLA leave. But keep in mind that if you’re not getting a paycheck, you’ll be contributing to your portion of your health insurance, assuming your company doesn’t pay for 100 percent of your insurance coverage. So instead of having your coverage contribution automatically drawn from your paycheck like normal, you’ll have to make an arrangement with your company to cut them a check for it in order to keep it going. If you’re getting paid through vacation time or sick leave, your employer can draw it out of there.

Yikes. So what if something really terrible happens and I’m out longer than 12 weeks? Am I basically gonna lose my job?

“There may be no obligation for an employer to hold someone’s position,” says Clayton. “So yeah, that’s a possibility … unless the company continues to allow very, very long leaves of absence. And there are companies that may be generous like that.”

Damn. What about my health insurance? That’s when I’ll need it the most!

True. You have three options here: Either continue your plan through COBRA (a federal law that entitles you to continue on your plan if you lose your job), buy insurance on the open market or through Obamacare. None is terribly attractive! On the one hand, COBRA is great because you get to keep your (presumably) nice company plan, but the downside is that you have to pay 100 percent of the cost, sometimes even 102 percent! Meanwhile, insurance on the open market is notoriously expensive, and Obamacare’s political future is far from certain — at the very least, we know that thanks to some of the recent laws passed by the Trump administration, rates are expected to increase in the near future.

So if I lose my job and my insurance, what the hell am I supposed to do?

Excellent question! Not all hope is lost, even though, job-wise, this is basically a worst-case scenario. Clayton says you can apply for unemployment through your state — that’s kind of a no-brainer. However, be aware that eligibility for many state unemployment programs depends on you being willing and able to seek employment. So if you’re laid up, or in bad shape, this may not be physically possible for you.

Another idea, Clayton says, is to preempt the conversation before you lose your job and talk to your company about working from home, or working part-time, or finding something you’d be physically able to do. Hopefully they’d work with you on that. Clayton also says she’s worked for companies that are willing to extend leave to their employees past the legal standard, or provide leave for those who don’t qualify for FMLA. It’s all worth a shot!

Bottom line is, the laws are a half-decent short-term safety net only. They won’t provide any kind of smooth landing if the worst of the worst comes to pass, but think of them as something to at least give you some runway.