The Department of Labor’s 76-page FMLA guide book has plenty of fine print detailing the myriad of conditions that qualify an employee for extended, protected work leave. But that fine print is only as beneficial as your understanding of its foundation.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is notoriously difficult to navigate. What’s more, the compliance stakes are high. Negligence and even minor mistakes can result in costly class-action lawsuits. So, let’s review the basics.
Purpose and Context
FMLA is a U.S. labor law requiring qualifying employers to provide employees with unpaid, job-protected leave for reasons related to medical and family-related issues. It was regulated by the Wage and Hour Division of the US Department of Labor in 1993 during Bill Clinton's first presidential term. The growing U.S. workforce brought with it an increasing number of women and mothers. This created an overwhelming need for employees to meet the demands of work and family without risk of losing their job or benefits.
The FMLA has been amended several times since its conception: most notably, in 2008, to provide leave to employees with family members serving or injured on military duty and, in 2009, to expand the two types of military leave that first became available in 2008.
Who gets covered?
The FMLA only applies to employers who meet specific criteria:
- Private-sector employers, with 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year, including joint employers or successors in interest to a covered employer; OR
- Public agencies, including a local, state, or federal government agencies, regardless of the number of employees; OR
- Public or private elementary or secondary schools, regardless of the number of employees employed
The FMLA only applies to employees who meet specific criteria:
- Works for a covered employer
- Has worked for the employer for at least 12 months
- Has performed at least 1,240 hours of service for the employer during the 12-month period immediately preceding the leave (special hours of service eligibility requirements apply to different types of employees)
- Works at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles
Qualifying For FMLA Leave
The FMLA is best summarized as providing up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to attend to the serious health condition of the employee, parent, spouse, child, or for the pregnancy or care of a newborn child, or for adoption or foster care of a child. More specifically, an employee may be eligible for the following reasons:
- The birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth
- The placement of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly-placed child within one year of placement
- To care for spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition
- A serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job
- Any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is covered military member on covered active duty
Another option for eligible employees may be to take up to 26 work weeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness. This applies when the employee is the spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin of the service member. The “single 12-month period” for military caregiver leave is different from the 12-month period used for other FMLA leave reasons. Check out some of these other DOL fact sheets to make sure you’ve got all the information you need on a case-by-case basis.
Things to Keep in Mind
This policy is pretty extensive, and there are a lot of opportunities to misstep, intentionally or not. Here are some things to keep in mind that can aid your compliance flows smoothly:
- Employees must comply with their employer’s standard requirements for requesting leave and provide enough information for their employer to reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the request.
- When an employee seeks FMLA-related leave for the first time, the employee may not explicitly mention FMLA or even know that they qualify. This means that it is up to the employer to recognize cases that may apply.
- Employers are required to provide employees notice of their FMLA eligibility within five days of their making the request.
- If an employee later requests additional leave for the same qualifying condition, the employee must reference either the qualifying reason for the leave or the need for FMLA leave. Intermittent leave is allowed for chronic conditions.
- Employers must maintain health benefits during the leave.
- Upon returning, an employee must be restored to his or her original job or to an equivalent job with equivalent, pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.
- It is unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of any right provided by the FMLA. It is also unlawful for an employer to discharge or discriminate against any individual for opposing any practice or because of involvement in any proceeding, related to the FMLA.
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