The Family Medical Leave Act is one of the most common laws under which new mothers and parents receive unpaid, job-protected time off after the birth of a new child, and yet determining your own FMLA eligibility can still feel tricky.
FMLA protects employees rights such that they may return to their former employer after a period of what is typically called maternity or paternity leave. The details of FMLA are important for all new parents planning on taking an unpaid leave in order to care for a new baby, and we try to answer some of the most commonly asked questions and provide links to resources (like FMLA forms) below.
Note: We are not attorneys but have compiled the basic facts from publicly available resources available at the U.S. Department of Labor’s website on FMLA.
The Family and Medical Leave Act is a federal law, enacted in 1993, that may provide you with unpaid, job-protected time off from work for up to 12 weeks if you’re unable to work because you or a close family member has a serious health condition (including having a new baby). It does not typically include bereavement leave, but one of the most common uses of family and medical leave law is for women who expect to or need to take maternity leave.
The vast majority of U.S. private employers do not offer paid parental leave for the birth and bonding period after having a baby. Currently, no job protections are offered by most private employers as well. The federal law FMLA covers maternity leave because a new baby is a member of your family that requires caretaking. Though it is not technically a serious health condition for you to give birth, in the case of most healthy normal deliveries, there is still a period of incapacity.
Yes, FMLA is gender neutral and applies to new parents of either gender, including adoptive, foster care, and legal guardians. In fact, there is a growing movement to change the way we refer to this leave to “parental leave,” or the yet-more inclusive “caregiver leave.”
An eligible employee is one who:
In order to qualify for time off covered under FMLA, you must work for a certain type of employer. If you work for the government (at the local, state or federal level), your employee eligibility is covered under FMLA. The law defines a "covered employer" as:
However, if you work for a private company, that company is exempt from having to provide FMLA-based leave if it employs fewer than 50 employees. If you work for a small employer or small business with less than 50 employees, then you are not going to be covered by FMLA unless that company voluntarily decides to allow you time off for your maternity leave, sick leave (or a generalized caregiver leave for a family member who has those needs).
That said, certain state laws may provide you time off, job protections, or even partial wage coverage. For more information about various state laws that may apply in addition to (or instead of) FMLA, you can view our overview of state laws here.
If you are a new employee or were hired while you were pregnant, you do not technically qualify for family and medical leave. There is a minimum tenure requirement of both having worked for at least one year prior to taking family leave, as well as having worked at least an average of 24 hours per week during that past year.
If you meet the above requirements, be sure to think about whether your employer has at least 50 employees within a 75 mile radius of where you physically work. If it does not, and the employees are spread thin over a larger distance, that employer is not required to offer you FMLA leave or a guarantee of the continuation of your employment status post-leave.
FMLA requires that group health benefits be maintained while you are on leave. This is generally a very important leave entitlement for employees since newborn children and parents often are undergoing some major healthcare expenses related to childbirth!
If you are eligible for FMLA leave and job-protected time off, then your employee rights include the ability to take up to 12 weeks of leave in any 12-month period for a wide range of reasons.
You may have a serious health issue, or your spouse, parent, or child may have a serious health issue such as something that renders them incapable of attending work or school themselves for at least three consecutive days and requires ongoing medical attention. Some examples:
FMLA law requires that you provide your employer with a designation notice if you are in a situation where you can (i.e. obviously if you get into a serious car accident, you would not have been able to anticipate this and provide advance notice). For example, if you are pregnant or know you are due to receive medical treatment or surgery that will incapacitate you for several weeks, you must tell your employer at least 30 days in advance of when you need to take your short-term disability leave.
You don’t technically need to frame your request for time off as “FMLA” based, but it can’t hurt. Even if you don't request FMLA leave specifically, you still need to give your employer enough information that she would understand that this time off should be counted as such (e.g. that you cannot work because of either your physical condition or that of a family member).
FMLA leave is not automatically granted and a process must be followed, so do not assume that just because you meet the employment eligibility requirements for FMLA that you will automatically be allowed to take job-protected leave under this policy. With that in mind, the process after requesting FMLA will unfold as such:
If during FMLA leave (or before it begins, if you are in a situation where you have had time to provide advance notice), and your employer requests a medical certification from you, and you must return that certification form to your employer within 15 calendar days.
You must stay in touch with your employer, and they must also stay in touch with you while you are out on FMLA-protected leave. For example, if your medical doctor or healthcare provider tells you that you may return to work earlier than expected, you must inform your employer. Your employer can also request that you provide periodic updates on whether you plan to return to work and your medical condition.
Though not all employers must require it, if your employer requests a medical certification from you, you have 15 calendar days to receive one from an employee health care provider. You are responsible for obtaining and paying for this certification, and if you do not provide it, you may be denied FMLA eligibility.
Your medical certification must include:
If your employer believes your certification does not cover all the information they require, they must notify you in writing about what additional information is needed, and you will have seven calendar days to comply with their request and provide the missing information.
Your employer has the right to ask for a second opinion if they are concerned about the validity of your request, but they must bear the cost of this second opinion. They may even request a third opinion in the case of a conflicting first and second opinion (again, at their expense). Certain employers may also want to receive an updated certification and request that you provide one.
FMLA requires that when you return to work, your employer must return you to the same or very nearly identical job. If you return to a new job, the definition for a “nearly identical job” includes the fact that the new position must:
You may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division who is responsible for enforcing FMLA. Their contact number is 1-866-487-9243 and they will assist you in filing a complaint which will require you to name you and your employer and the details of your complaint and employer’s response.
It is best to have all your documentation regarding notification to your employer (and vice-versa) documented on paper or email to the extent possible. The following information will be useful in filing your complaint:
Parents, children, spouses, and “in loco parentis” count as family members under FMLA. They are defined quite clearly:
Yes, certain types of employees have different eligibility rules for FMLA. For example:
FMLA only protects eligible employees’ job on an unpaid basis for 12 weeks for a 12-month, calendar-year period. If you do not return to your job within these time constraints, you will no longer have access to your same job when you return and your employment status may not be protected (meaning you could be laid off or fired).
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