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

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) 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, life happens, and employees should be protected when they need to focus on caring for family or a health issue.

Here are the top FMLA 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. 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 care for sick or injured immediate family members

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 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?

Employees need to meet certain criteria before they can be covered by the Act. Eligible employees:

  • Need to have worked at your company for at least 12 months
  • Must have worked at least 1,250 hours during those 12 months

How can I stay FMLA compliant?

Compliance can be yours by checking off two main tasks:

  • Post a copy of WH Publication 1420, which is a poster that explains what employees’ rights are under the FMLA, in your workplace.
  • Include information about the FMLA in employee handbooks and other materials. At a minimum, you must provide a copy of their rights if an 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. 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 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 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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