What Is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that provides eligible employees of most 50-plus 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. The US Department of Labor’s (DOL) Wage and Hour Division administers and enforces it, and there are some separate state laws that also exist, covering an employer’s responsibilities for these employee benefits.

Why does it exist? Because sometimes, life happens, and an employee needs to focus on caring for family or a health issue, and should be protected to take it all at once or as intermittent leave or a reduced schedule, as needed.

Here are the top FMLA employer rules and requirements you need to know about.

How does FMLA leave work?

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 of leave. However, an entitlement for military family leave allows next of kin up to 26 weeks to care for servicemembers on active duty or veterans with serious health conditions.

You need a qualifying exigency to take FMLA leave, and here are the three FMLA-qualifying reasons:

Keep in mind that the FMLA only requires you to provide unpaid leave. But many employees don’t take advantage because they can’t afford to forgo their paychecks for an extended period of time. That’s why some 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?

The Act typically applies to companies that have 50 or more employees on staff for at least 20 workweeks this year or last. Companies with fewer than 50 people on their team aren’t covered by the FMLA rules.

When counting your team, be sure to include these groups of employees:

  • 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 leave 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.

Are all of my employees covered by the FMLA?

An employee’s leave needs to meet certain criteria before being covered by the Act. Eligibility includes:

How can I stay FMLA compliant?

Compliance can be yours by checking off two main tasks:

There are also a few more things to watch out for: States may grant employees additional leave in specific circumstances. And 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 the situation.

If an employee requests leave that falls within the FMLA requirements, 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 a written FMLA notice to that person explaining any expectations you have. Make sure this is sent within one or two business days from the date of the leave request for the time off. Form WH-381, “Notice of Eligibility & Rights and Responsibilities under the Family and Medical Leave Act,” 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, such as how health insurance needs to be maintained with premium payments and whether you require that the employee’s FMLA leave be supported by a medical certification from a health care provider.

Don’t leave stuff to the last minute—these situations apply to tons of people, so you want to be ready when these things come up. Being prepared will help your employees feel more confident during these situations.

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