Understanding the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

If you – or someone you love – live with a chronic illness, you may eventually need to take time off from your job to focus on a health issue. Luckily, in cases of medical need, there are laws in place to help you have a job to come back to! This article will briefly explain the protections provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), so that you’ll know what options are available in case you ever need to make use of them

What is FMLA?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed in 1993 to help create a better balance between workplace demands and the medical needs of employees and their families. The law allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to address their own serious health condition – or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. (FMLA is also available for the birth or adoption of a child, and an additional 14 weeks of unpaid leave is available to provide care for a family member who has been injured in military service.) Though the leave is unpaid, employers are required to continue group health insurance coverage for an employee on FMLA leave under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave.

Who is eligible for FMLA?

However, just having a job does not necessarily qualify you for FMLA leave. Both the company and the employee need to be eligible under the law. For a private-sector company to be eligible, it must have at least 50 employees who work within 75 miles of your work site. Public agencies and local education agencies (schools) are eligible regardless of the number of employees it employs. Other eligibility requirements vary somewhat from state to state, so check with your company’s Human Resources department.

Eligible employees must have worked for their current employer for at least 12 months prior to requesting FMLA leave. This employment does not have to be consecutive, which means that seasonal work could (in most cases) be used to meet the 12 month requirement. Employees must also have worked at least 1,250 hours during those 12 months. For someone who works an 8-hour day, this translates to approximately 156 days of work.

If you need to take FMLA to be a caregiver for an “immediate family member” you’ll need to check on your state’s definition of that term. According to federal law, “immediate family members” include parents, spouses, and children – but various states have also expanded the definition to include domestic partners, a parent-in-law, a sibling, or a grandparent.

Remember, if you and your company are eligible, it is unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny you the opportunity to exercise the rights provided by FMLA. It is also unlawful for an employer to discharge or discriminate against employees for requesting or using FMLA.

How do you request FMLA?

If you and your company are eligible and you want to make use of FMLA leave, you must give 30 days advanced notice of your intentions to your employer. If the employer rejects your request, they must submit it in writing within two days of your request. Once leave is granted, the decision is final and your company cannot retract the leave.

Your company may, however, require you to use up your paid leave (sick time, vacation time, or any other personal time) before you are eligible to use FMLA. Even if your company does not require it, you may still elect to use paid time off first for financial reasons. 

What proof of medical need is required?

Though medical information is considered personal, your boss is entitled to ask for proof of the medical reason you have for requesting leave. If your boss asks, you must obtain certification of the medical condition for which you are requesting leave – either yours or your immediate family member’s. The Department of Labor specifies that if your employer is going to ask for certification, they should do so within five business days of your request for leave. After your boss asks for certification, you are allowed at least 15 calendar days to obtain the necessary proof. Your boss will also be allowed to contact your health care provider for authentication or clarification, but will only be allowed to discuss the information contained in the certification form. The employer may also require a second or third medical opinion (at the employer’s expense) and periodic recertification of a serious health condition.

What happens after you return to work?

After taking leave under FMLA, a job is guaranteed to you upon your return. Ideally, your company would be able to restore you to the same job you had before. However, it is important to note that isn’t what is guaranteed under the law. Instead, the Department of Labor gives your employer the option of giving you “an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.” So keep in mind that making use of FMLA may result in a job change upon your return.


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