If life was a pie, work would be just one delicious slice to enjoy. The Family and Medical Leave Act, nicknamed the FMLA, was created in 1993 to help protect all the other slices. Specifically it provides employees of most 50+ person companies with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave — including health benefits — on a rolling 12-month basis, which can either be a calendar or fiscal year.
Why does it exist? Because sometimes (read: most times), life happens, and employees should be protected when they need to focus on caring for family or a health issue. In this article, we’ll go through the top FMLA requirements you need to know about so you can continue to appreciate all the different spheres that make up your employees’ lives.
How FMLA leave works
Leave your leave questions at the door. Eligible employees can use their time all at once or chunk it out into separate blocks of time. In most cases, the period of time lasts for up to 12 weeks. However, a provision for military caregiver leave allows next of kin up to 26 weeks to care for a seriously ill or injured person who served.
Here are the three main reasons people take FMLA leave:
- To look after their own health issues
- To bond with newborns or newly adopted children, or
- To care for sick or injured immediate family members
Keep in mind that the FMLA requires you to provide unpaid leave. Like, without pay. As an employer, you have the opportunity to go above and beyond with your leave benefits, and therefore you can offer people paid time off for many of the types of leave packed into the Act. Sadly, a lot of employees don’t take the time off because they can’t afford to say goodbye to their paychecks for such a wide window of time. That’s why the majority of employers provide some sort of paid time off in addition to the flat amount of time that the FMLA mandates.
Does the FMLA apply to my company?
There’s a strong chance it could. The Act applies to your company if you’ve had 50 or more employees on staff for at least 20 workweeks this year or last. Not really you? Companies with less than 50 people on their team aren’t covered by the FMLA rules. Use this golden rule to guide you:
The FMLA applies if you’ve had 50+ employees for any 20-week period during the current or previous year.
As you’re counting up your team members, these are the groups of employees you should weave into your final headcount:
- All your part-time, full-time, seasonal, and temporary employees
- Any employee listed on your payroll records, even if they didn’t get paid one or more weeks during the given period of time
- Any employee on paid or unpaid leave — including FMLA or disciplinary leave — as long as there was an expectation that they would come back to work
- Anyone working for a foreign company, but located in the US.
Which employees are eligible for FMLA leave?
FMLA eligibility doesn’t happen just like that. Employees also need to meet certain criteria before they can be covered by the Act. Specifically, they need to have worked at your company for at least 12 months, and during that time, they must have worked at least 1,250 hours.
Eligible folks also need to work at a location where 50 or more employees are located within 75 miles of that location. Yes, it’s that exact. As the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) explains, the location requirement doesn’t apply to home offices.
How do I stay FMLA compliant?
Compliance can be yours by checking off two main tasks:
- Make a copy of WH Publication 1420 available, which is a poster that explains what employees’ rights are under the FMLA.
- Information about the FMLA should also be included in any employee handbooks or other materials. If not, a copy about their rights must be provided if any employee submits a request for leave.
There are also a few more things to watch out for. States may grant employees additional leave in specific circumstances. In some situations, the FMLA may overlap with other legislation, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — both of which apply to employers with 15 or more employees. So be sure you check everything that’s out there, depending on what’s going on with your employee.
If an employee requests leave that falls within the FMLA, they don’t need to specify that they’re taking FMLA leave — they just need to explain why the leave is needed. It’s up to you, the employer, to recognize it as FMLA leave.
Once you’ve established that an employee is taking FMLA leave, you must provide written notice to that person explaining any expectations you have. Make sure this letter is sent within one or two business days from the date that they request the time off. Form WH-381, “Employer Response to Employee Request for Family or Medical Leave,” covers all the key information you need to address. If you’d prefer to use your own form, make sure you include all the necessary details.
Don’t leave the leave stuff to the last minute — these situations apply to tons of people, so you want to be ready with open arms when these things come up. By arming yourself with the brass tacks, you’ll help your employees feel calm during any intense or stormy situation.