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Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Disclaimer: The below article on FMLA is not, nor should be used as, official training material for the FMLA certification test as offered by the Department of Labor. This is simply information on the basics of FMLA. Consult DOL.gov if you wish to pursue an actual FMLA certification or want the fine details.

You’ve probably heard about the Family and Medical Leave Act. This law can be challenging to understand. Does it apply to your company, and if so, how do you stay in compliance with it? What are the consequences if you don’t? Here are the basics to know as you begin to learn about this important aspect of HR work.

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

FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) is a legal right given to certain employees that allows them to take time off of work for medical reasons. If an employee qualifies for FMLA leave, they are allowed to take up to 12 weeks a year away from work without the company being able to fire, dock pay, or demote them. FMLA leave is generally unpaid, unless the employee decides to use vacation pay for the time absent.

FMLA History

The Family Medical Leave Act was passed and signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. The movement had begun more than a decade earlier, but rarely received enough bi-partisan support to get through Congress. Although FMLA can apply to both sexes for varying circumstances, it was mainly women who made the significant push for the movement during the time frame. The Women’s Legal Defense Fund (now known as the National Partnership for Women & Families) was particularly powerful in its influence to pass this law.

Why HR Needs to Understand FMLA

Even if your company is not mandated to provide it, all HR professionals must know the basics about FMLA, if only to determine that. Here are other reasons why understanding FMLA is essential.

  • It is a legal right for employees. While not all companies are required to adhere to FMLA rules, any company that has over 50 employees is. Not granting FMLA to employees who qualify for it can expose the company to serious potential lawsuits.
  • HR is in charge of managing FMLA. It is the job of HR to handle all FMLA cases, and not that of other management. An employee in the HR department needs to become FMLA-certified by the Department of Labor in order to legally administer it.
  • Chances are you’ll run into it at some point or another. If you work in HR, particularly for a large company, you are likely to be assigned to work with FMLA in one way or another. Knowing FMLA will impress your company management.
  • Potential liability. Incorrectly administering FLMA can expose your company to federally-imposed fines of $10,000 or more.

What Employers Are Required to Honor FMLA Leave?

If a company has at least 50 people who work within 75 miles of a given workplace, it is required to provide FMLA leave.

Which Employees Are Eligible for FMLA Leave?

Assuming your company is required to provide FMLA leave, your next question will concern who is eligible for it.

  • Employees are eligible once they have worked with the company for 12 months. If an employee works for a company, quits, and then comes back, total time worked at the company will carry over.
  • Employees must have worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12 months. This is about 25 hours per week, so part-time employees may or may not be eligible.

When Eligible Employees Can Use FMLA Leave

Employees who are covered by FMLA can request it for a variety of reasons. Here are the most common.

  • To care for one’s own serious medical condition. If an employee has any serious medical condition that requires time off, then this would be an appropriate time for them to use FMLA. They can use it to recover and heal until they can return fully back to work.
  • To care for a spouse, child, or parent who has a serious medical condition.
  • Pregnancy or birth. An employee can take time off if they have serious medical issues due to pregnancy, such as required bedrest or severe morning sickness. When they give birth, they may also take time off to recover and care for the baby.
  • Adoption or foster care. An employee may take time off for the placement of a child for adoption or foster care, but it must be within one year of the event.
  • Military family leave. An employee may take time off for medical reasons due to a deployment or to care for a military service member who has a serious injury or illness.

How to Help an Employee Take FMLA Leave

There are six basic steps in the FMLA cycle.

Step 1: Make Sure an HR Representative Is FMLA-certified

The Department of Labor offers courses, as well as a test that an HR representative must take and pass before they can administer FMLA. This ensures that employees are properly trained and that all regulations are followed, decreasing risk for the company.

Step 2: Proper Notification

An employee should give the company 30 days advance notice of any pending surgeries or needed time off. If it is an immediate or sudden problem, they should notify HR as soon as they can with any necessary medical documentation.

Step 3: HR Approval

HR has five business days to review the request and notify the employee if they are eligible for FMLA leave.

Step 4: Employee Submits WH-380

The employee has 15 calendar days to submit the medical certification form filled out by a doctor. These forms are called WH-380s. There are different versions of the form for the various reasons for FMLA leave.

  • WH-380e: Employee’s serious medical condition
  • WH-380f: Family member’s serious medical condition
  • WH-384: Military qualifying exigency
  • WH-385: Caregiver leave for military service member
  • WH-385v: Military caregiver for a veteran

Step 5: Leave Is Taken

If there are any changes to the medical circumstances for the employee, they should be in communication with the company during the leave.

Step 6: Employee Returns to Work

An employee needs to bring documentation that allows them to return to work safely. This is usually filled out by a doctor.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About FMLA

How much time can an employee take for FMLA leave?
An employee can take up to 12 weeks in one year. Each day is counted individually, so whenever a day taken hits its one-year anniversary, it is renewed for one more day. For example, if you take eight hours of FMLA time on January 16, 2021, those eight hours will renew the next year on January 16, 2022. If an employee runs out of FMLA leave, the employer may grant additional time off, but is not required to do so. One of HR’s responsibilities is to keep track of FMLA leave for its employees and make sure they are not using more than allowed.
What qualifies as a serious medical condition?
FMLA exists to cover “serious medical conditions.” How are these defined? Conditions are considered serious if they require an overnight stay at a hospital or medical facility; render the employee out of action for three consecutive days; involve pregnancy; or are chronic or recurring conditions that require two or more doctor visits per day.
What benefits do employees get while on leave?
In short, none. FMLA is a non-paid employee right. The employee may choose to use vacation pay during the time they are out, but the employer is under no obligation to provide pay. Some companies offer their employees short-term disability benefits, but it is not required.
What happens to the employee's job while they are gone?
The employer may deploy a temporary replacement worker to cover for the absent employee, but they must return the job to the original employee when they return, including the same general pay, job duties, and responsibilities.
What are the penalties for incorrectly denying an FMLA leave request?
A labor dispute can be filed against the employer and can lead to serious legal trouble or lawsuits, including fines of $10,000 or more for violating FMLA laws.
Chase Cragun

Chase Cragun

Chase is an HR professional who specializes in large manufacturing plants. He has completed various successful projects that have improved retention, achieved higher employee satisfaction, and saved time through automated software. He is currently an MHR/MBA candidate from Utah State University.

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