While I’ve never experienced disability, I’ve seen first-hand how it can affect your job. My wife needed foot surgery a while back and could no longer perform her duties as a nurse, so she went out on disability. Even worse, the foot surgery failed and she had to go through the whole process again. We learned a lot from my wife's disability, though we wish we didn’t have to learn it the hard way. Here are some of the big takeaways that everyone should know about disability under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA):

The Family Medical Leave Act Protects Your Job . . . Sometimes

The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 — commonly called the FMLA — is a federal law that requires certain employers to provide their employees unpaid, job-protected leave for certain qualified medical or family reasons. This law is amazing in that there was no requirement for job-protected leave prior to its passage. However, it's far from perfect.

When Do Companies Have to Offer FMLA? Who Qualifies?

Only certain employers have to offer FMLA. Employers — both public and private — have to offer FMLA if they employ 50 or more people within 75 miles of the worksite.

Some states passed laws that enact even lower thresholds. Every company my wife has worked for was required to offer FMLA leave. That said, in order to qualify for FMLA leave, the employee must have worked at the business for at least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 hours during that time.

What Qualifies for FMLA Leave?

Not every situation qualifies for FMLA leave. However, there is a long list of situations that do. They include:

  • Recovering from your own illness.
  • Caring for an immediate family member who is sick, including legal spouses, children, and parents.
  • Taking care of an injured service member.
  • Caring for a new child through birth, adoption, or placement in foster care.
  • Addressing immediate needs that arise when a family member is deployed.

I should note, though, that caring for relatives other than those listed above doesn't qualify for FMLA leave. You can't use FMLA leave for routine sicknesses or routine medical care, either.

What Do Your FMLA Rights Entitle You To?

Most of the aforementioned situations qualify for up to 12 weeks of leave, either consecutive or scattered throughout the year. Some employers count the 12 weeks based on a calendar year or fiscal year, while others use a rolling year based on the date a person first takes FMLA.

My wife’s condition after her foot surgeries was considered her own serious illness. As a result, she qualified for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Unfortunately, it took longer than 12 weeks to recover, so her job wasn't officially protected. And when my wife took 12 weeks of FMLA leave after we had our child, she again returned to her job only after the leave expired.

In addition to the unpaid time off, employers must continue providing health insurance benefits, including any employer subsidies. Your other employee benefits will be protected and restored after you return to work. FMLA states that your employer cannot retaliate against you for taking FMLA leave, either.

Keeping health insurance benefits at the employer-subsidized rate was a huge help each time my wife was out of work for disability.

Employers often subsidize health insurance by hundreds of dollars a month. Considering the reduced pay, the increased cost would have been burdensome without FMLA protections.

What Position Will You Return to?

One of the biggest surprises most people find after taking FMLA leave is that your employer doesn’t have to reinstate you to the same position you left. FMLA says that your employer should reinstate you to the same position . . . unless they filled it while you were out.

If your employers fill your position, they must reinstate you to another position that's equal in pay, benefits, and responsibility. However, it doesn’t have to be the exact same one.

While my wife’s FMLA eligibility for her foot surgeries expired before she recovered, her employer assured her that she’d return to the same position that she left. Unfortunately, it turned out they weren’t telling the truth. As a nurse, she had to return to work in a different area of the hospital.

However, since her pay and responsibilities were essentially the same, she would have technically received a suitable job under FMLA. When she was out for her pregnancy, her new employer did allow her to return to her same exact job, which we were very thankful for.

FMLA rights are amazing, and it’s important to take leave to care for yourself or your family if necessary. But unfortunately, using the leave does put you at risk of losing your exact position while you’re gone.