The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that entitles qualified employees to take unpaid leave for specific health-related or family-related events. FMLA leave is typically up to 12 weeks but may be up to 26 weeks if leave is requested to care for a family member who is injured while serving in the military.

While FMLA leave is unpaid, employees cannot be fired for taking this leave. They must also continue to be covered by their employer’s group health insurance, if applicable. Employees are eligible for FMLA leave if they have been employed for at least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12 months.

FMLA requirements apply to all companies “covered” by the act—typically private organizations with 50 or more employees, public and private schools, and government agencies.

Why is FMLA important?

Complying with FMLA is a federal requirement for employers who are “covered” by this law. Non-compliance with FMLA can lead to an investigation by the Department of Labor, penalties of $10,000 or more, and civil lawsuits from employees.

Is your company required to provide FMLA leave?

The following organizations are required to provide FMLA leave to eligible employees:

  • Private employers with 50 or more employees. Your business’s employee count includes all remote employees who live within 75 miles of an office with at least 50 people.
  • Public and private schools. FMLA applies to all elementary and secondary schools regardless of the number of employees.
  • Local, state, and federal government agencies. FMLA applies regardless of the number of employees.

Notifying employees about FMLA

If your company is covered by FMLA and you’re required to provide FMLA leave, you must notify your employees. 

The first requirement for notifying your employees about FMLA is to display a general information poster about the act that is visible to all employees. The Department of Labor has information posters in English and Spanish available online for you to print, which can be placed in a common area like a break room. The poster must be displayed even if you do not have any employees who are eligible for FMLA leave.

In addition, you must provide an information notice specifically for FMLA-eligible employees. This notice covers employees’ rights under FMLA. Many employers include this information in their employee handbook or their benefits guide.

What employees are eligible for FMLA leave?

Employees must meet 2 requirements to be eligible to take FMLA leave:

    1. They must have worked with your company for at least 12 months. These months do not need to be consecutive. So, if an employee joins, quits, and then is re-hired later, their cumulative employment with your company is what counts for FMLA eligibility.
    2. They must have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months. This is an average of 25 hours per week, so most full-time employees and some part-time employees will qualify. 

When can employees take FMLA leave?

There are several situations in which eligible employees can take FMLA leave.

Pregnancy and birth

Employees can request FMLA leave during pregnancy, including for prenatal doctor’s visits, pregnancy-related illness, and childbirth. They can also take FMLA leave for childcare during the first year after birth. 

Adoption and foster care

Employees who adopt or foster a child can request FMLA leave to care for the child during the first year after placement. This applies regardless of the age of the child.

Family care

Employees may request FMLA leave to care for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious medical condition.

Medical conditions

Employees can take FMLA leave for serious medical conditions that prevent them from performing their job duties. Serious medical conditions are defined under FMLA as those that involve an overnight hospital stay, incapacitate the employee or a family member for 3 or more days, and/or chronic conditions that leave them or a family member occasionally incapacitated and require at least 2 doctor’s visits per year.

Military active duty

Employees can request FMLA leave due to unforeseen circumstances that arise due to a spouse, child, or parent being on active duty or being called to covered active duty in the military.

Military injury

Employees can request up to 26 weeks of FMLA leave to care for a spouse, child, parent, or next of kin who has suffered a serious medical condition while on covered active duty in the military.

How long is FMLA leave?

FMLA enables eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period. Employees who request FMLA leave to care for an injured military family member can take up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period.

Employees can make multiple FMLA requests within 12 months, provided that the requests are for different qualifying reasons. However, total FMLA leave across all requests cannot exceed the 12 or 26-week limits.

Employees may take intermittent FMLA leave or work a reduced schedule for a single qualifying reason. Intermittent leave must be medically necessary—leave taken to care for a new child may be taken intermittently only with the employer’s agreement. Employers may temporarily transfer an employee on intermittent leave to an alternative job with equivalent pay and benefits to minimize disruptions to operations.

Employers may require that employees use all of their paid time off before taking FMLA leave.

Handling FMLA requests

Employees can initiate an FMLA request by notifying an HR representative of an upcoming need for leave. Employees must give 30 days’ notice for scheduled leave (e.g., a planned surgery or anticipated childcare). For sudden or unexpected leave, employees must notify their company’s HR representative as soon as reasonably possible.

Supporting certification from employees

You have the option to require an employee to certify the reasons for their leave—unless an employee is requesting leave to bond with a new child after birth, fostering, or adoption.

If certification is required, your employee has 15 days to submit documentation of the reason for their leave, which may include a medical note. The certification form, WH-380, is available on the Department of Labor’s website

As an employer, you must respond to FMLA requests and certification submissions within 5 days.

While an employee is on leave, they should remain in communication with their employer and provide updates if there are any changes to the reason for their leave. Before returning to work after a serious medical illness, employees must submit documentation from a doctor certifying that they can do so safely.

FMLA resources

FMLA requirements are complex. The Department of Labor has created a document called The Employer’s Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act to help HR representatives navigate this law.

The Department of Labor’s website also has forms related to FMLA, including printable FMLA notification posters and WH-380 certification forms. 

You can keep up to date with the latest rules for complying with FMLA by following the Department of Labor’s interpretive guidance.

Conclusion

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires all organizations that are covered by the act to offer up to 12 or 26 weeks of unpaid leave to qualified employees. Employees can request FMLA leave due to a serious medical condition, to care for a sick family member, to take care of a new child, or for reasons related to having a family member on active duty in the military.

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