Understanding the Family and Medical Leave Act

Category: Articles
Posted: 04-08-2015 04:11 AM
Views: 7836
Synopsis: In survey after survey, the FMLA is voted as one of the most asked about human resource topics. This program gives detailed description of Act and outlines the information you need to know as a human resource professional.

Established in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act provides protection to employees unable to work for health reasons. This not only encompasses one’s own ailments, but also covers employees who need to take time off to care for a loved one. Over the years there has been much debate about who qualifies as a “loved one”, however, in every state if an employee meets all other criteria, they can take leave to care for a spouse, parent or child. Also covered under this law is both the birth and adoption of a child. Meant to allow for parent/child bonding, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covers both a mother and father.  


Under the FMLA, employers are not required to pay the employee. However, at the end of the leave, the employee must be allowed to return to their current job or one of equal status and pay. As important, this act requires you, the employer, to continue to provide the employee with health coverage. If eligible, the employee can take as long as twelve weeks off during a calendar year. An exception is when caring for military personnel which extends the allotted time off to as much as twenty-six weeks. 


Known as “qualifying exigency”, the FMLA further covers the loved one (that is a spouse, parent or child) of active military personnel in the National Guard or Reserves. Meant to allow for problems or adjustments resulting from one being called to active duty, the employee is allowed to take time off for child care or to handle the financial or legal affairs of someone recently deployed. The act also covers leave for military ceremonies, counseling sessions or meetings related to deployment. 




To qualify for the FMLA, employees must meet certain stipulations. Specifically, they must have been in your employ for a minimum of one year before requesting leave. And, only employees who have worked a total of 1250 hours qualify for leave. This equates to an average of 25 or more hours per week. Along with the employee qualifying, your organization is only governed by this law should you meet certain standards. This is a surprise to many who assume the law applies to every organization. On the contrary, only employers with at least 50 workers within a certain proximity of one another is obligated under this law. It is important to note that there may be some changes or additions to this rule depending upon the state in which you do business. 


Definition of Loved On


With the ongoing legal debate over same sex marriage, the question of who is a loved one has come up repeatedly regarding the FMLA.  However, after much deliberation, the rules now include eligible employees who are in legally recognized same sex marriages. In this case, the employee should receive the same benefits afforded any other couple. However, your HR staff should watch for changes or adjustments to this rule as there are ongoing proceedings regarding this matter. 


In some states being a caregiver for a sibling or parent-in-law may also qualify. Consequently, it is important to consider and research every request before an acceptance or denial. 


What Health Conditions Qualify


Many medical conditions qualify under the Family and Medical Leave Act. This includes health issues that have occurred because of a catastrophe such as a car accident or fall. Any condition that requires a stay in the hospital or rehabilitation center will likely qualify. However, a hospital stay is not required for a health condition to qualify. One need only to be physically unable to work or perform normal everyday duties as declared by a physician. Some other examples include recovery from a necessary surgery, or an illness that mandates repeated therapies or treatments. This includes complicated pregnancies that may require bedrest. 


Documentation Needed


When an employee requests leave you may ask for legal documentation. Although you may feel uncomfortable asking, it is important to have to ensure and protect your organization from potential fraud. Often referred to as certification or authentication, it is safest to use the standard form provided by the U.S. Department of Labor. Divided into three sections, the form asks questions for the employer, employee and health care provider. Along with detailed questions about the illness, the health care provider must also give a professional opinion regarding the employee or loved one’s recovery and estimated length of incapacitation. 


In the case of leave due to qualifying exigency, you would request official active duty orders for the employee files. Additionally, legally you can require certification from the employee specifying the reasons for, conditions of and estimated length of leave. Again, you can download these forms from the website of the U.S. Department of Labor. 


Other Requirements


Under federal rules, an employee must give you 30 days’ notice of their intent to utilize the Family Medical Leave Act. This will allot you time to find a qualified replacement or delegate their duties to the appropriate staff. Nonetheless, unexpected emergencies occur such as car accidents, heart attack or stroke that don’t allow for advanced notice. In this case, obviously 30 days’ notice is not possible. Still, if they meet the guidelines, they can take leave under the FMLA immediately. But, if they have unused vacation or sick days, you can require they use these days before the FMLA is applied. 


Finally, you must inform the employee within five business days (in writing) of your intention to accept or deny the leave. This letter should further provide specifics about contingencies such as the receipt of written documentation and/or medical forms. Other information such as anticipated length of the leave can also be included. 


Returning to Work After Leave


Once the employee feels able to come back to work, you will likely set a date for their return. If they were a caregiver, this should be no problem. However, if they were ill, it may be wise to request a release form from their health care provider. This will ensure the employee is healthy enough to return to their normal work load and routine. 


For the HR Professional


Before the Family Medical Leave Act, employees with illnesses not only had to contend with their medical condition, but they would also have to worry about losing their jobs because of missing work. Created to alleviate this worry and give employees some peace of mind while facing a medical crisis or caring for a loved one, the FMLA is important in today’s workforce. And with people living longer and the increase of single family households, more and more employees will need to take advantage of this federal law. 


Consequently, it is crucial that all human resources personnel know the ins and outs of the FMLA. This law however is complex with many nuances. Additionally, it is imperative that you keep abreast of any changes in the law as well as guidelines that may be state specific. In fact, some states even have their own family leave acts that may expand or even add on to the federal one. 


Denying an eligible employee protection under the FMLA can result in an expensive civil lawsuit. Along with suing the corporation, the employee may have just cause to pursue a legal claim against their immediate supervisor or other manager. 

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