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

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a labor law requiring employers of a certain size to provide employees with unpaid time off for serious family health issues or situations. Qualified reasons may include adoption, pregnancy, foster care placement, family or personal illness, or military leave. It also provides for the continuation of 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.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (DOL-WHD) is in charge of the FMLA program.

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 up to 12 weeks for reasons such as childbirth, adoption, and personal or family illness.
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 guarantees that when an employee 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.
  • To qualify for the FMLA, an employee must work for a firm that employs at least 50 people working within a 75-mile radius of the work site, and they must have been employed for at least 1,250 hours within the past 12 months.

Understanding the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA was signed into law on Feb. 5, 1993, by President Bill Clinton. Its passage was an acknowledgment by the federal government of changes in U.S. families, the workplace, and the labor force—for example, the proliferation of single-parent households or households in which both parents work—and the expectations of both employees and employers.

The law guarantees that a qualified employee may take up to 12 weeks off for reasons such as pregnancy/childbirth, adoption, personal illness, or the illness of a family member. The types of qualified medical and family situations also include foster care or military leave—for instance, if the eligible employee is a service member’s spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin (military caregiver leave), they are entitled to 26 weeks of leave.

The FMLA-mandated time off is an unpaid leave.

Furthermore, 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.

The Purpose of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The FMLA seeks to remove the need for workers to choose between their jobs and their families, enabling them to balance employment security and caring for their children, parents, or other members of their extended family.

It impacts women in particular by recognizing the outsized roles they play in caregiving, and the fact that their familial role as default caregiver has a significant effect on their working lives and careers. For instance, it allows them to take a leave to care for a newborn or an adopted child, with the assurance that they can return to their job afterward.

But it also acknowledges the importance of men in serving a role in their families beyond that of the breadwinner.

The FMLA's intentions are indicated in the stated intentions of the bill itself:

  • 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 these purposes in a manner that accommodates the legitimate interests of employers;
  • To accomplish these purposes 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.

In 2020, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) expanded the FMLA's provisions to include leaves for COVID-19 related purposes. The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) expanded that program and extended it to Sept. 30, 2021.

Special Considerations

Not every employee is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act. Companies have to be of a certain size, and the worker has to have met certain conditions.

Specifically, to qualify for time off under the FMLA, a worker:

  • Must be employed by a business with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius of their work site
  • Must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months and 1,250 hours within the past 12 months