The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
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." Successful usage of FMLA is dependent on clear communication and teamwork between the employer, employee, and medical team.
If care needs are related to another family member who is active duty military and is called to service, employees who are eligible for FMLA can take up to 26 weeks of leave.
FMLA is intended to promote the work-life-family balance, enhance 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).
- Public agencies (federal, state, or local) must provide FMLA coverage, regardless of the number of employees.
- Schools, public or private, must provide FMLA, regardless of the number of employees.
- Some states have different requirements for employers and FMLA. Be sure to check with your HR office.
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 or family member for a chronic condition which results in incapacitation. Pregnant women and families who adopt a child are also covered under FMLA.
How does FMLA work?
An employee can take up to 12 weeks (60 workdays or 480 work hours) of unpaid time per year under FMLA. This 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, you receive chemotherapy on Thursdays, so you take Thursday and Friday under FMLA time and also have the weekend to recover. You then return to work as scheduled on Monday. You have used 2 days (16 hours) of FMLA time.
Be sure to check with your 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 the employer within fifteen (15) days of incapacitation.
If you have sick or vacation time, your employer should work with you on using this time with FMLA so that you have income. Your employer should also facilitate the usage of short and long term disability pay, in conjunction with FMLA, if this benefit is offered by your job.
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 cancer treatment can help manage your cancer-related distress. Or, for the caregiver, knowing you have protected time to care for a loved one can help you balance between supporting yourself and meeting the needs of your loved ones who require assistance and care.
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, Jane is coping with colon cancer. She requires assistance getting to her chemotherapy appointments 1 day every three weeks and care for the three days after she receives chemotherapy. She schedules her chemotherapy for Thursdays. Her daughter Sue accompanies her to treatment on Thursday (1 FMLA covered day for Sue, intermittent leave); her son Mike stays with her on Fridays and through the weekend (1 FMLA covered day for Mike, intermittent day).
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, as well as to meet the caregiving needs of your family member.