FMLA Basics: Ten Things Employees Should Know

Learn about the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which gives employees the right to take time off to fulfill certain caregiving responsibilities or recuperate from a serious illness.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed to help employees balance work and family obligations. The law requires employers to let employees take leave to care for family members or recover from a serious illness. But not every employer, employee, or need for leave is covered. This article explains ten things employees should know about this landmark law.

1. Not every employer is covered. Employers have to comply with the FMLA only if they had at least 50 employees for at least 20 weeks in the current or previous year. Smaller employers don't have to comply with the FMLA (but they may have to follow a similar state law).

2. Not every employee is covered. Even if an employer is covered by the FMLA, its employees may not be. An employee must have worked for at least a year, and at least 1,250 hours during the prior year, for the company to be protected. Also, the employee has to work at a company facility that has at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius to take FMLA leave.

3. Leave is allowed only for certain reasons. Employees can take FMLA leave for their own serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, or to bond with a new child. Military family leave is also covered by the law: Employees can take this type of leave to deal with certain practical matters arising from a family member's call to active military duty or to care for a family member who suffers a service-related illness or injury.

Learn more about Taking Time Off Work.

4. FMLA leave is unpaid. Under some circumstances, employees may be able to use their accrued paid leave (vacation or sick days, for example) to get paid while they are on FMLA leave. But the law doesn't require employers to offer extra paid leave.

5. Employees can take 12 weeks off per year for most types of leave. The exception is for employees who need time off to care for a family member who suffers an injury or illness while on military duty: Employees may take up to 26 weeks of leave in a 12-month period for this reason, but the right doesn't renew every year. In other words, an employee may take this type of leave only once per family member or per injury.

6. Employees must meet notice requirements. If your need for FMLA leave is foreseeable, you must give 30-days' notice. If not, you must give as much notice as practicable, usually on the same or the next business day after you learn that you need leave.

7. You may need to provide a medical certification. The FMLA gives employers the right to request a medical certification from the health care provider treating you or your family member, verifying your need for leave. If your employer asks you to provide one, you generally have to return it within 15 calendar days.

8. You can take most kinds of leave intermittently. You don't always have to use all of your FMLA leave at once. Instead, you can use it as you need it, even just a few days or hours at a time (for example, for medical treatment). If you are taking leave to bond with a new child, you may take intermittent leave only if your employer agrees.

9. You are entitled to continue your health insurance while on leave. Your employer may require you to continue paying your share of the premium. If you decide not to return to work after your leave, you may have to reimburse your employer for what it paid to continue your benefits -- but only if you chose not to come back. If you couldn't return to work due to circumstances beyond your control, you don't have to pay these amounts.

10. Your employer must reinstate you to the same or an equivalent position when you return from leave. In other words, you are entitled to get your job back after your leave. The law creates an exception for certain highly paid employees; if you are one of them, your employer must tell you when you request leave.

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