Introduction to FMLA for Parents

Author: Christina Bach, MBE, LCSW, OSW-C
Last Reviewed: August 08, 2022

What is FMLA?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 permits employees to take unpaid, job-protected, leave of absence time due to the serious medical condition of the employee or a family member - a spouse, parent, or child - though some employers might have a broader definition of "family member."

In 2014, a proposal to amend FMLA to include same-sex partners/spouses was introduced but has not been formally adopted. Successful usage of FMLA is dependent on clear communication between the employer, employee, and medical team.

Who is eligible?

Biological and step-parents are eligible for FMLA to care for a child with a physical or psychiatric illness. FMLA also applies to parents caring for adult children. Grandparents, siblings or other adults with no legal or biological relationship, who are acting in loco parentis, (meaning the grandparent, sibling, or other adult provides day-to-day responsibilities to care for and financially support the child) may also be eligible for FMLA as long as in loco parentis requirements are met. For further information about the definition of parents and in loco parentis guidelines, see this US Department of Labor Fact Sheet.


FMLA is intended to promote the work-life-family balance, enhance the quality of life for employees, and promote economic security and stability. The presence of workplace flexibility programs, like FMLA, may impact worker productivity and can improve morale within the workplace. FMLA helps employees feel like they do not have to choose between their jobs and their own well-being, or the well-being of a close relative who is coping with illness. FMLA-covered time applies to both mental and physical illnesses of the individual/family member.

Which employers must offer FMLA?

Private employers with 50 or more employees and all public employers must offer FMLA to their employees who have worked at least 12 months and 1250 hours within the previous year (the equivalent of 31.25 hours per week).

What is a serious medical condition?

A serious medical condition is a condition that results in an overnight stay in a hospital/extended care facility, and/or 3 days or more of incapacitation/inability to perform work tasks, and/or the need for ongoing medical care for the patient, child or family member for a chronic condition, which results in incapacitation. Pregnant women and families who adopt a child are also covered under FMLA after the arrival of the child.

How does FMLA work?

An employee can take up to 12 weeks (60 wor-days or 480 work hours) of unpaid time per year under FMLA. The year is defined differently by employers: for some, it is the calendar year (beginning in January), for other employers it is the fiscal year (beginning in July), and for some employers the year is associated with your date of hire. Be sure to ask human resources at your job when your year benefit period for FMLA begins.

FMLA time can be taken at one time or intermittently, meaning you can take time as needed with proper notice and planning with your employer. For example, your daughter receives chemotherapy on Thursdays, so you take Thursday and Friday under FMLA time and also have the weekend to provide care. Your child returns to school on Monday and you return to work as scheduled on Monday. You have used 2 days (16 hours) of FMLA time.

Be sure to check with the human resources representative at your job regarding specific FMLA guidelines, forms, and processes. The earlier you know you will need to access FMLA time, the better. Most employers recognize that health issues often come up unexpectedly and cannot deny you FMLA time based on when you apply for leave. However, FMLA standards require the employee to provide documentation to support the FMLA claim based on a “serious medical condition” to the employer within fifteen (15) days of incapacitation.

If you have vacation or PTO time, your employer should work with you to use this time with FMLA so that you continue to have income.

What is so great about unpaid leave?

It is correct to conclude FMLA has nothing to do with getting paid. FMLA serves to protect your job. Your employer cannot hire someone else for your position while you are out on FMLA-protected time. You are also entitled to the same position or an equivalent position, as well as the same benefits and shift as your previous position when your leave time ends. Knowing you have a job to return to after the completion of your child’s cancer treatment can help manage your cancer-related distress.

More states are beginning to offer paid family leave. Learn more here.

Use FMLA to your Advantage

Multiple family members can take intermittent FMLA to care for the same family member with a serious medical condition. For example, 5-year-old Jane has a brain tumor. Jane has daily radiation treatments for 6 weeks and needs a parent to bring her to her treatment. Her mom, Sue, accompanies her to treatment on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays (3 FMLA covered days for Sue, intermittent leave); her dad, Mike, takes her to treatment on Thursday and Friday (2 FMLA covered days for Mike, intermittent leave).

Both Sue and Mike are able to continue working, maintain their benefits, and provide care and support for Jane. Because there are two caregivers involved, FMLA time used intermittently can help families maximize time to provide care for a sick child.

It is also helpful to delegate tasks, use calendar or scheduling tools, and work with your healthcare team to come up with a plan to maximize FMLA time for all family members. Even though FMLA time is not offered to aunts, uncles, or grandparents, these family members can be helpful with other tasks like babysitting, homework help, meal preparation, and respite care.

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