what is fmla

Being a parent may be the greatest job in the world, but it’s also the toughest. This is especially true when you’re welcoming a new baby into the world or your child falls ill. That’s the time when your little one needs you more than ever. However, your need to be with your child can all too often conflict with your need to be on the job. 

The good news, though, is that you don’t have to choose between your child or your career. Federal law offers protections for employees who are caregivers when they face extraordinary circumstances, such as a birth, death, or illness. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is the most significant of these federal protections — but what, exactly, is FMLA and how does it work?

The Basics

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was designed to protect the jobs of employees experiencing exceptional medical circumstances in their immediate families. FMLA applies to a range of events, including birth, adoption, foster care placement, death, or significant illness in the immediate family, as well as non-work-related illnesses or injuries the employee may be suffering. 

In general, FMLA entitles civilian employees to up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave in a calendar year. These 12 weeks may be taken consecutively or may be distributed throughout the year, provided that the employee reports any leave taken on the same day that the leave occurs. For military families, FMLA entitlements may be extended to 26 weeks for qualifying conditions, such as a service-related injury of an immediate family member.

Conditions and Qualifications

As substantial as FMLA protections may be, there are a number of conditions you’re going to need to meet before you qualify.

First, you’re going to need to have worked for your current employers for a minimum of 12 months, or 1,250 hours, to qualify. It’s also important to note that if you work for a small company, your employer may not be required to provide leave under FMLA. Only employers who have employed 50 or more employees for at least 20 weeks in the current or previous calendar year must comply with FMLA. 

How to Qualify

In most cases, you’re going to need to do some prep work in order to qualify for FMLA protection. For instance, most employers will require medical documentation to prove the existence of a serious illness or injury in the employee or an immediate family member, such as a child, spouse, or parent. 

If the leave is requested due to another life circumstance, such as military deployment, the adoption of a child, or the placement of a child in foster care in your home, then you’ll almost certainly need to provide documentation for this as well. 

Your best bet is to speak with your employer early and often to determine what your company requires in order to invoke FMLA protections. 

Planning Ahead

While it might seem like an unnecessary hassle to get your FMLA qualifications in place before you need them, such future planning can save you a lot of anxiety. You will have the relief of knowing your bases are covered, that the documentation is ready and a plan is in place when you, your child, or your loved one needs it.

For example, if your child has been diagnosed with an illness, determining who will provide your child’s care in the event of an emergency is of the utmost importance; it not only provides peace of mind, but can also assist you in the FMLA process. These practitioners may be able to provide the documentation you need to protect yourself under FMLA, even if you do not plan on using it right away. 

Once you have qualified under FMLA, then you will typically only need to report to your HR representative or corporate headquarters when you actually plan to use the leave. Most employers will allow you to take unpaid FMLA leave without notice, provided that you notify your designated contact person on the same day that the leave is taken.

It’s also important to remember that, though FMLA leave is unpaid, it will protect your job. You cannot be fired or demoted because you have missed work due to an FMLA-qualifying event. 

For this reason, when you or someone you love experiences a medical crisis, it’s critical that you not rush the return to work, especially over fears of losing your job. A health crisis, especially when intensive treatment is involved, can often lead to medical post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even when the medical crisis has passed, you and your loved one will need time to recover mentally and emotionally, particularly if medical PTSD has been triggered.

The Takeaway

Written into law in 1998, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers robust protections for workers and their families facing serious illness or injury or experiencing a significant life event, such as a birth or death, that renders the employee temporarily unable to do their job. Though the leave is unpaid, it protects the job of employees who require up to 26 weeks of leave within one calendar year. Important conditions do apply, however. Small employers are exempt and new employees do not qualify until they have been on the job for at least 12 full months. In addition, qualifying employees will not be protected until they have the required documentation in hand and have completed the application process outlined by their employer according to federal guidelines. 


By: Amanda Winstead

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