Can I use my PTO to take care of a sick family member?

Many workplaces that offer paid time off (PTO) allow employees to take care of eligible sick family members, whether sick leave is separate or included in a PTO total.

Your employer’s policy

The first thing you should do is check your employee handbook for your employer’s sick leave policy. Many employers include family members in their sick leave. It’s common for an employer to restrict the definition of a family member for sick leave. Generally, when a policy is restricted, it deals with immediate family members (spouses, children, parents are the most common).

Some will also explicitly list siblings, grandparents, or dependents. It’s less common to have a blanket policy that would also include cousins, aunts and uncles, or roommates. Generally, an employer’s policy will not specify what kind of sickness is eligible (federal law that provides mandatory leave does restrict eligibility to serious illness only).

If your company doesn’t have an explicit policy in the handbook, you can ask your HR representative. If there is no HR representative, your manager will be able to tell you whether sick leave can be used to care for a sick family member.

If your company doesn’t allow this, you can ask HR to consider including this as part of your sick leave policy. Point out that allowing employees to use sick leave makes your employer more attractive to prospective employees. Many high-performing employees are either parents or caregivers who could use the flexibility to take their dependents to appointments.

For FMLA-eligible employers

The Family Leave Medical Act (FMLA) is a labor law that affects larger employers, those who had 50 or more employees within 75 miles of a worksite in 20 weeks of the past year. FMLA provides some job-protected leave for eligible employees for eligible purposes, although that leave does not have to be paid.

Here are some basics on how FMLA applies to family leave:

  • An employer only has to follow federal FMLA if they have 50 or more employees within 75 miles of a worksite in 20 weeks of the past year.
  • Some employers, such as educational agencies or airlines, may have slightly different rules.
  • An eligible employee must have worked at least 12 months at the company and must have worked over 1,250 hours in the past year. 2,080 hours in a year is what most full-time employees work (40 hours over 52 weeks).
  • An eligible employee can take off to care for a seriously ill family member, with restrictions on what constitutes a family member.
  • Covered family members include spouses, sons or daughters, and parents. Sons or daughters can be biological, adopted, foster, stepchildren, or legal wards. Children over age 18 must be incapable of self-care due to a disability. Parents can include step or foster parents as well as anyone who stood in loco parentis to raise a child.
  • Other relatives are not covered by FMLA, including siblings or grandparents, unless those siblings and grandparents were considered parents in loco parentis.
  • There are special rules around being next of kin of a veteran or active service member.

If an employer is FMLA-eligible, the employee has satisfied the work hour conditions, and the family member is eligible, an employee can take FMLA leave for a family member.

  • Employees can have up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a seriously ill family member. Note that routine sickness like a common cold does not constitute “seriously ill” under FMLA.
  • This leave can be taken at one time, but it can also be taken as intermittent FMLA. Intermittent FMLA is common when someone has a chronic condition that requires a lot of doctors’ appointments, like with someone who needs a lot of psychotherapy, physical therapy appointments, chemotherapy, or dialysis.
  • Employees are supposed to give advance notice of up to 30 days if a serious condition is foreseeable, although this usually applies more to the birth or adoption of a child.
  • Employees must claim FMLA the first time they use it and regularly after that.
  • FMLA leave usually involves filling out a lot of paperwork, compared to just taking sick leave using your employer’s policy. You often have to provide verification of absence (ex. a doctors’ note) for FMLA appointments. This can get very cumbersome if you are taking intermittent FMLA leave. If your employer is large enough to qualify for FMLA, your employer likely has an HR department with at least one person who is highly knowledgeable about FMLA and its requirements.
  • If you take an extended break because of FMLA, your job should be protected when you return. If you don’t return to your exact position, your employer has to restore you to be “substantially similar” position with regards to pay and responsibility. Benefits must continue through the FMLA period, and they must be there when you return.

State Laws

Some states have additional protections on top of federal law.

  • A handful of states drop the threshold below 50 employees. The lowest employer thresholds are in Vermont, which extends parental leave to employers with 10 or fewer employees, and all family medical leave to those with 15 or more employees. You can google “family medical leave [your state name]” to see what your state offers.
  • Other states expand coverage to more types of family members. Domestic partners, grandparents, and parents-in-law are the most common type of family members covered in other states.
  • Other states also have specific uses of FMLA leave that aren’t covered federally. These usually apply to organ donations.

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