What Is FMLA Leave?

As an employee, you may have asked yourself “what is FMLA leave?” FMLA leave is an unpaid absence from work for qualified workers for a total of up to 12 weeks under the Family Medical Leave Act, a federal law passed by Congress in 1993. When medical needs or family obligations collide with job responsibilities, an employee may be forced to take extended time off from work.

How Do I Know If FMLA Covers Me?

An employee qualifies for FMLA leave if they have worked for the same employer for at least 12 months. Even though the employee will not be working for that time, he or she will remain employed with unchanged and ongoing medical coverage.

State, local, and federal entities, as well as all public agencies, must adhere to the rules set forth by the FMLA. Even schools must comply. If a private company has 50 or more workers employed for at least 20 weeks during the present or prior year, it is subject to the rules of FMLA.

Who Is Eligible for Family Medical Leave?

Only qualified employees can receive the benefits of FMLA. To be eligible, a worker must:

  • be employed by an employer with FMLA coverage.
  • have worked for a minimum of 12 months for at least 1,250 hours within those months.
  • be at a place that employs at least 50 employees or is located within 75 miles of another location of that same business that does.

To request leave, the worker must have a significant medical condition that prevents him or her from being able to work. If this does not apply, the worker must have caregiver responsibilities for an immediate relative who suffers from a serious medical illness. Another qualifying situation includes the birth of a child, or when the employee needs to provide care for his or her new child.

Other situations that qualify an employee for FMLA leave include:

  • the placement and ensuing care for a foster or adopted child.
  • when an employee's parent, spouse, or child is serving on active duty in the Reserve or National Guard backing a contingency action.
  • caring for parents (not in-laws).
  • caring for a child that is over 18 years old, provided the child has a grave handicap that interferes with one or more of his or her major life functions that make it impossible for self-care.
  • a necessity to assist a blood relative or next of kin suffering from an illness or injury received from active duty in the military. This has a provision for leave of up to 26 weeks and is only renewed for another 12-month period if the family member becomes ill or injured again.

What Is a Qualifying 12-Month Period?

There are four options that employers can choose to calculate the applicable 12 months:

  • Calendar year
  • Fixed "leave year" (anniversary of employee's start date or fiscal year)
  • A 12-month period that begins at the start of the worker's first FMLA leave
  • A retrograded 12-month year from when the first FMLA leave began

Are There Other Types of Leave That May Apply to FMLA?

Worker's comp or paternity or maternity leave can be considered part of an employee's FMLA allotment during a year if it meets the FMLA requirements and there is a written notification provided to the employer.

Does Family Medical Leave Apply to Therapy Appointments?

FMLA leave covers recurring treatments that you are receiving from your health care provider. It is okay to count medically necessary therapy sessions as part of FMLA leave.

Does My Employer Need Records of My Medical Condition?

Although your employer has the right to request you to show an official certification of your medical condition, you are not required to provide medical records.

Can My Employer Terminate the Leave?

It is important that proper medical certification of your health condition be presented to keep your leave active, so you are not obligated to return to work. However, if you have submitted acceptable documentation to the employer, you cannot be requested to go back to work prematurely. Even by presenting an opportunity to work part-time or shorter hours, your employer cannot make you come back to work.

You may be asked to return to active employment and end FMLA leave for the following reasons:

  • You were not honest when initially requesting the leave
  • The situation that prompted the leave is no longer valid
  • You neglect to give medical certification

Are There Restrictions While on Family Medical Leave?

For the most part, your employer is not allowed to impose any restrictions while you are on leave. However, in some cases, there may be policies that your employer has in place for outside employment of which you may have to be compliant.

Can My Request for Leave Get Rejected?

Your leave request cannot be denied by your employer if FMLA covers your company and the following is true:

  • You have not exhausted your allotment of weeks for the current 12-month period
  • You have complied with certification requirements
  • Your notice follows the guidelines set forth by FMLA

Is My Job in Jeopardy If I Request Leave?

Under FMLA, you have guaranteed rights which do not permit interference from your employer. You have every right to be reinstated to your position once your leave period has ended.

The only real elimination occurs if your job gets justifiably eliminated. An example of this would be if you have a position in the accounting department and your employer decides to lay off all the staff to outsource the bookkeeping responsibilities instead. You would not have an entitlement to reinstatement.

Any decisions regarding employment, such as a termination or promotion, cannot use your leave as a negative aspect or influence. Even if you were to make a complaint about an FMLA violation you feel has occurred, your employer is not allowed to retaliate by firing you.

In some cases, if you are what is considered a "key" employee (salaried and highly-paid), your employer may refuse to reinstate you to your job duties.

A key employee may have his or her reinstatement denied by the company if:

  • returning to work would be an economic injury that is "substantial and grievous" to the company.
  • you rank in the upper 10 percent of most highly paid salaried employees in the company's workforce within a 75-mile range of the location.

Although your employer may not let you have your job back, you must be notified beforehand of your status as a key employee, along with the admonition that it is possible you will not return to work.

Will Family Medical Leave Affect My Bonus?

If you were qualified to receive a bonus before your leave, it cannot get denied because you took time off. It would not be acceptable for your employer to use your FMLA-related absence from work as justification to keep you from getting the bonus. Alternatively, your employer is not obligated to tally time spent on leave to add toward any accrual of benefits, seniority, or a future commission.

Do the 12 Months of Employment Need to Be Consecutive?

Eligibility for FMLA leave is first determined by the length of an employee's service to an employer. The 12 months of employment required to qualify does not have to be consecutive. However, breaks in your work over a period of seven years or more do not count. The exception to this exclusion would be if the gaps in service were due to a written agreement between the employer and employee or if the worker had obligations to the military.

What Are "Hours of Service?"

Before the start of the leave, the employee needs to have worked at least 1,250 hours within the qualifying 12-month period. The "hours of service" are only the actual hours spent working on the job. Whether paid or unpaid, any situations that kept the employee away from work, such as sick days, vacations, or holidays, are not included in this calculation.

How Do You Know If FMLA Covers a Company?

For each working day during the past year, a private sector employer must have employed at least 50 workers within a span of 75 miles to have FMLA coverage. A smaller, remote site of a larger company's headquarters that has eligible employees will only qualify for coverage if the smaller location meets the minimum employee requirement within the appropriate mile radius.

Federal and state governments and other public agencies are not subject to the same employee-count requirements as private employers. A federal employee, in most cases, is eligible to receive FMLA leave.

When Is a Notice Required for Leave?

If the need for leave is foreseeable, the FMLA requires you to give your employer a 30-day notice. If the need is not predictable or an emergency arises, it is necessary, if possible and practical, considering the circumstances, to provide as much notice as you can.

How Soon Will I Receive a Notice of Eligibility?

After you have informed your employer of your reasons for wanting leave and made your request, the employer has five business days to provide FMLA eligibility notice.

Are There Options If I Am Not FMLA Covered?

If FMLA does not cover your employer or you are not eligible for other reasons, but you need the time off due to medical concerns, there may be alternative forms of leave available. It is at your employer's discretion, but your company could permit you to take unpaid time away from work if the business's needs are accommodating.

Another option for you may be to use any available or accrued vacation time or sick days. Your employer may also offer long-term or short-term disability. If FMLA is not an option, the best thing to do is to discuss with your Human Resources department or manager regarding the company policies for alternative types of leave.

Will I Lose My Health Insurance Benefits?

While you take FMLA leave, if you are part of your employer's group health plan, you will continue to have health insurance coverage. However, if you were to voluntarily decide to not go back to work after your leave period is over, your employer has the right to require a reimbursement from you for any insurance premiums that the company paid on your behalf while you were out.

If your health condition persists, recurs, or if situations out of your control prevent you from returning to work, your employer is not allowed to require you to reimburse.

Can I Use Paid Leave Time I Have During My FMLA Leave?

Although FMLA leave may be an unpaid absence from work, in certain circumstances, you are given the right to use any of your accrued paid time off while you are away from work. You are not allowed to use paid sick leave while you are on FMLA leave if you are caring for a sick relative, unless state law or your employer's leave policy permits it. Either company protocol or state law must cover any other reason you have the take the leave for the use of accrued waged leave.

If there are procedures in place for taking paid leave, such as giving a week's notice before using vacation time, you must follow those rules as normal. If you urgently need to go on FMLA leave and cannot give a week's notice, the first week of your leave may be unpaid to allow for the required notice period.

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