Understanding the Family Medical Leave Act

When you or a family member experience health issues, this can be a huge stressor. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a federal law passed in 1993, was designed to alleviate some of those stressors by allowing employees to balance their work demands and family responsibilities. Ultimately, under FMLA, a person is able to care for their family for an extended period of time without fear of losing their job.

Understanding the family medical leave act
Verywell / Jessica Olah 

What Is FMLA?

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. It also requires that their group health benefits be maintained. People can use FMLA when they or a family member have a serious illness. They also can use it to care for a newborn or an adopted child.

The idea is that if someone qualifies and their employer meets certain requirements, they can take time off to handle these important situations without losing their health insurance or their job. The leave can be taken all at once or intermittently as the medical condition dictates.

Eligibility Requirements

In order to qualify for FMLA, you must first work for an employer that is required to offer the 12 weeks of unpaid leave. For instance, private companies with 50 or more employees are required to adhere to the guidelines of the FMLA as are government agencies including local, state, and federal employers regardless of the number of employees.

If you do, in fact, work for an employer that is required to adhere to the FMLA, you also must meet several eligibility requirements.

These include the following stipulations:

  • You must have been employed for at least 12 months. However, the 12 months do not have to be consecutive months, which allows for seasonal workers to apply under the FMLA.
  • You must have worked for the employer for 1,250 hours within the last 12 months before qualifying for FMLA. That number correlates to an average of about 24 hours a week for 12 months.
  • You must work at a location where the employer has 50 employees within a 75-mile radius of your worksite. So, even if your employer has 50 or more employees, but your worksite does not have 50 employees within a 75-mile radius, then you will not be eligible.

Covered Circumstances

In general, you can use FMLA to care for a sick child, spouse, or parent with a serious health condition. You also can use FMLA for your own serious health condition. The most common heath conditions under FMLA include a medical condition that requires an overnight stay in the hospital, chronic conditions that cause you or a family member to be incapacitated and require treatment, and issues with pregnancy such as bed rest or severe morning sickness.

FMLA also can be used if you are expanding your family. For instance, you can take leave for the birth of a child and to bond with your newborn. You also can take leave if you are adopting a child or receiving a foster child. Both men and women have the same right to take leave under FMLA in the case of a new child, but their leave must be taken within one year of the child's birth or placement in your home. Additionally, this time must be taken as a continued block of time and not intermittently.

There are times when employers will allow a mother or father to take their FMLA leave intermittently; however, the employer isn't required by law to do so.

Finally, there are a number of special provisions for the military. For instance, you can take up to 26 weeks of FMLA leave within a single 12-month timeframe to care for a service member with a serious injury or illness.

What You Need to Know

Before you ask your employer about FMLA, you need to be sure that you qualify. As a result, make sure you not only review the FMLA eligibility requirements but talk to your human resource department as well. If there is an employee handbook, be sure to familiarize yourself with it. Additionally, it is good to know a few key facts about FMLA.

  • You may be able to use your paid leave while on FMLA leave. This might include accrued sick leave, vacation time, and other paid time off. However, there is no legal requirement for employers. Check with human resources to see what your company requires. Keep in mind that even if you do not want to use your paid leave, your company can require you to use it first.
  • If you take FMLA, your employer must continue your health insurance as if you were not on leave. You may have to make normal employee contributions for this insurance though. Again, it is best to check with your human resources department.
  • Employers are not allowed to hold your FMLA leave against you when it comes to hiring or promotions. They also cannot discipline you for using it.
  • As long as you return to work before your FMLA runs out, you must be given the same job or one almost identical to it. Companies are not permitted to demote you or give you less income for taking leave under FMLA.
  • You can take your leave as one large block of time, like when you have surgery. Or, you can take it intermittently if you have a chronic illness that requires you to take time off every so often to manage your illness or to care for a sick child.
  • In order to take leave under FMLA, you must give your employer an appropriate notice. If you know in advance you will need to take a leave of absence, you need to give your employer 30 days notice. If you must take leave unexpectedly due to a family member's unexpected accident or illness, then you should let your employer know as soon as possible.
  • Your employer has the right to ask for medical certification to verify that you do in fact need to take a leave of absence under FMLA. You have 15 calendar days to provide this certification and if it costs anything to get the appropriate documentation, you are responsible for the costs involved.
  • If you exhaust your FMLA leave and are still unable to return to work, your employer is not required to hold your job, or one similar to it, for you.
  • There are times when key employees, like those in upper management, are not guaranteed the same position or a similar one after an FMLA leave.

A Word From Verywell

The FMLA is an important resource for people who have been thrust into a caregiver role without warning. Although it is a federal law, there are still some employers that do not abide by it and try to intimidate their employees into not taking a leave. However, this is against the law. As a result, you have the right to file a complaint if your employer denies, restricts, retaliates, or interferes with your FMLA leave. Be sure to reach out to the United States Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division to file a complaint if you feel your rights have been violated. You can reach them at 1-866-487-9243.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Labor. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

  2. U.S. Department of Labor. Need Time? The Employee's Guide to the Family Medical Leave Act. 2015.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.