FMLA 101: From basics to fine print


FMLA 101: From basics to fine print

The Family and Medical Leave Act became law in 1993.  But you still might not know what it does.

Basically, it lets you take time off work to take care of yourself or your family without losing your job.

Of course, it’s not exactly that simple.  The leave you take is unpaid, you can only take it for certain reasons, and you have to follow certain rules.  And to muddy the waters even a little more, each state has their own set of laws, so it’s important to know what’s available in your state, as well as at the federal level.

Before the FMLA, employees often had to choose between caring for a sick family member and keeping their job. So it’s worth learning about the law and how it can help you should you ever need it.

The Basics

Under the FMLA, you can take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave in a year for one of these reasons:

  • You or your spouse have or adopt a baby
  • You have an illness or injury that keeps you away from work
  • You need to take care of a family member who is seriously ill
  • You need to take care of a family member who is in the military

In most instances, your employer must let you take this leave if you work for a government agency or for a private company that employs more than 50 people.

You can’t be fired for taking this leave, and when you return to work, you must be placed in a position that is similar to your old job if that position is no longer available.

The Fine Print

Only certain conditions count as serious and only certain people count as family.  And you’ll need to hold up your end of the bargain when it comes to communicating with your employer and documenting your need for leave.

  • Generally, a health condition qualifies if it keeps you or your family member out of work or school for more than three days in a row and requires ongoing medical treatment, or involves an overnight stay in the hospital.
  • Qualified family members include your spouse, your parent and your children under the age of 18.
  • You can take up to 26 weeks of leave to care for a military service member in your family who has a serious health condition. You may also be able to take leave to deal with a family member’s deployment.
  • You have to request FMLA leave at least 30 days in advance for pregnancies and planned surgery. For unexpected situations, you must give your employer notice as soon as you can. There are also time limits for responding to employer decisions and requests for information.
  • You must provide documentation to prove you need the leave when your employer requests it.

The Even Finer Print

  • You must have worked for your employer for at least 12 months and have worked a certain number of hours before taking your leave.
  • Remember, FMLA leave is unpaid. Consider buying disability insurance, which pays you part of your salary if you can’t work due to a pregnancy, illness or injury.  Taking leave will be easier on your finances if you’re insured.

We don’t have space to include all the FMLA’s requirements here. Read the Department of Labor’s Employee’s Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act for more information.

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