Updated November 26, 2020:

How Does FMLA Work?

If you've ever asked, "how does FMLA work," you should know that the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a family member or because they have a qualifying medical condition. It also covers up to 26 weeks for Service Member Family Leave. Employers must follow specific laws that give benefits to the employee.

Provisions and Requirements of FMLA

To be eligible, the employee must have worked for their present company for at least a year, including 1,250 hours in the previous year and at least a 50 percent time schedule.

To apply for FMLA Leave, the following requirements must be met:

  • The employee must have a serious, certifiable health condition that involves continual treatment or inpatient care.
  • The employee must get medical verification from a health care provider that includes the employee's job description.
  • The employer may require a second or even third opinion if the first two opinions differ.
  • The employee may be required to provide additional medical certification during the leave of absence and a fitness for duty report before returning to work.

The employee must give prior notice before taking the leave of absence and give 30 days’ notice for any foreseeable leave.

Types of FMLA Leave

The various types of FMLA Leave include the following:

  • Continuous FMLA Leave involves an employee being absent for more than three consecutive business days and seeking the care of a medical professional.
  • Intermittent FMLA Leave is when an employee needs to miss work in separate blocks because of a qualifying health condition. The employee might need to miss work intermittently for hourly, daily, or weekly increments. It's typically for employees who seek ongoing treatment for a condition.
  • Reduced Schedule FMLA is for an employee who frequently needs to work fewer hours to care for a family member or as a method to reduce stress.
  • Maternity Leave often qualifies under FMLA; however, 18 states, plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, have more rigorous maternity leave laws than FMLA.

Other types of leave are also protected by law, including jury duty, voting with paid time off, and military leave. Most other types of leave are not protected by law, and the employer is not required to give the employee their previous position.

Why Is FMLA Important?

FMLA prevents employers from terminating an employee for eligible types of leave. Assuming the condition is medically verified, FMLA covers employees whose presence is necessary for a family member's care. These situations often include the following:

  • Adoption
  • Care of a Newborn Child Born to a Spouse
  • Foster Care Placement of a Child

FMLA is also important because it protects the family of military service members and their families under the following situations:

  • Military Caregiver Leave provides unpaid leave for an employee to take care of their eligible military relative for up to 26 weeks.
  • Qualifying Exigency Leave allows employees to take leave when their qualifying loved one is being deployed to a foreign country.

The Department of Labor investigates and resolves complaints pertaining to FMLA. An employee is able to bring civil actions for violating FMLA. FMLA does not supersede any state or local laws or collective bargaining agreements that offer more relevant rights, including discrimination and family or medical leave rights.

If the employer violates FMLA rights, remedies for the employee may include the following:

  • Employment benefits
  • Compensation denied or lost for the employee
  • Actual monetary loss
  • Interest
  • Liquidated damages or double damages
  • Employment reinstatement
  • Promotion
  • Reasonable attorney's fees
  • Reasonable expert witness fees
  • Other costs of legal action

These remedies are limited to 12 weeks of the employee's wages.

FMLA Payment and Benefits

FMLA is typically an unpaid leave, but employees may choose to use paid time off or sick time to cover their FMLA absence. Employers may require employees to use accrued paid time off for FMLA leaves. Some employees may have added paid time off in their absence policy. Payroll departments must always be informed about changes to an employee's pay during a leave of absence.

Employees can continue to receive benefits for up to 12 weeks if the employee continues to pay contribution amounts. Each employer's benefit policy differs and may include specific benefit language for those who don't qualify for FMLA.

Employers must continue an employee's health coverage under any group health plan for the entire duration of the FMLA leave. When an employee returns from FMLA leave, their position, pay, benefits, and employment terms must be restored. Finally, FMLA leave cannot lead to a loss of any employment benefit the employee accrued before their leave.

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