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

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a labor law requiring larger employers to provide employees unpaid leave for serious family health issues. Such qualified medical and family reasons may include adoption, pregnancy, foster care placement, family or personal illness, or military leave. It also provides for the continuation of health insurance coverage and job protection while the employee is on leave. The FMLA is intended to provide families with the time and resources to deal with family emergencies, while also guiding employers.

Key Takeaways

  • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a 1993 labor law that protects the jobs of employees who need to take a leave of absence for personal or family reasons.
  • The law guarantees that a qualified employee may take a job-protected leave of up to 12 weeks for reasons such as childbirth, adoption, personal or family illness.
  • In order to qualify, an employee must work for a firm that employs at least 50 people working within a 75-mile radius of the worksite.
  • Employees must have worked for the company for a minimum of 12 months and 1,250 hours within those 12 months.

Understanding the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is an acknowledgment by the federal government of changes in families, the workplace, the labor force, and the expectations of both employees and employers. For example, the proliferation of single-parent households, or households in which both parents work. The FMLA seeks to remove the choice workers and parents may have to make between job security and caring for their children, or elderly and extended family. It is an acknowledgment that children and families are better off when mothers can participate in early child-rearing, the outsized roles women play in caregiving, and the fact that their role as default caregiver has a significant impact on their working lives. The FMLA is often referred to as the "Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993." It was signed into law on Feb. 5, 1993, by President Bill Clinton. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees that when an employee on leave returns to work, they can return to the job they held before the leave. If that job is no longer available, they must be offered a job that is essentially equal in pay and status.

FMLA Guarantees

An employee who takes unpaid leave that falls under the FMLA is job-protected; that is, the employee can return to the same position held before the leave began. If the same position is unavailable, the employer must provide a position that is substantially equal in pay, benefits, and responsibility.

To qualify for FMLA, an employee must be employed by a business with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of his or her work site. The employee must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months and 1,250 hours within the last 12 months. The FMLA mandates unpaid, job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks a year. For more on employee and employer rights and responsibilities, see the Department of Labor's FMLA Informational Page or Fact Sheet #28, which offers more details. 

FMLA Purposes

The FMLA, as administered and recorded by the Department of Labor, has the following purposes:

  • To balance the demands of the workplace with the needs of families, to promote the stability and economic security of families, and to promote national interests in preserving family integrity;
  • To entitle employees to take reasonable leave for medical reasons, for the birth or adoption of a child, and for the care of a child, spouse, or parent who has a serious health condition;
  • To accomplish the purposes described in paragraphs (1) and (2) in a manner that accommodates the legitimate interests of employers;
  • To accomplish the purposes described in paragraphs (1) and (2) in a manner that, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, minimizes the potential for employment discrimination on the basis of sex by ensuring generally that leave is available for eligible medical reasons (including maternity-related disability) and for compelling family reasons, on a gender-neutral basis; and
  • To promote the goal of equal employment opportunity for women and men, pursuant to such clause.


Amid the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, the Department of Labor announced the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (EFMLEA), which mandates that certain employers provide 10 weeks of paid leave and 2 weeks of unpaid emergency family and medical leave to employees caring for children whose school or caretake is unavailable due to COVID-19. The new policy was part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). It was put into effect on April 2, 2020, and will continue through Dec. 31, 2020.