There’s no denying that the Family and Medical Leave Act is complicated — but that shouldn’t stop employees from knowing how to apply for FMLA leave if they need it. If you’re struggling to decide what FMLA information to pass on to your employees, start with these five fundamental FMLA lessons.
1. What the FMLA Is
Under the FMLA, qualified employees can take a job-protected leave for specific family- and medical-related reasons. No, they won’t get paid while they’re on leave unless you elect to have their paid leave run concurrently. But they also won’t be in danger of losing their jobs, and they’ll still have access to their group health care coverage.
If eligible, employees are entitled to 12 weeks of leave in a one-year period, or up to 26 weeks in a one-year period if they’re caring for a qualified service member.
2. How to Apply for the FMLA
Eligible employees generally must give their employers a 30-day notice that they need to take leave. But emergencies do happen, so in a pinch employees just have to give notice as soon as they can.
Employees must also provide enough information about their situation that an employer can determine whether FMLA applies — but the first time they request leave, they don’t need to specifically mention an FMLA leave to receive it. Within five business days of taking or requesting leave, it’s the employer’s responsibility to notify them if they’re eligible. Filling out this voluntary form is one way to notify an employee of eligibility.
Sometimes, employers can require a certification from a health care provider. They must typically request this within five business days of learning about the leave, giving employees 15 days to get the certification. Employers can require second or third opinions if they don’t think the certification is sufficient or give employees seven days to bring their certification up to the employer’s standards, but an employee is never required to hand over their medical records. To make things easier, employers can give this voluntary form to employees requesting certification.
3. Whether or Not They Qualify for FMLA Leave
The FMLA applies to most — but not all — employers. All public agencies and public and private elementary and secondary schools fall under the FMLA, as do businesses with 50 employees or more. Even if your business falls under the FMLA, though, not every employee qualifies.
Employees are only eligible if they’ve worked for your business for at least 12 months and have completed at least 1,250 hours of work within that time period (not counting time taken off for pregnancy complications). Geography also comes into play: They have to work within 75 miles of where the company employs 50 or more employees. Finally, employees seeking FMLA leave have to be in one of the following situations:
- Caring for a newborn within one year of their birth, or for the birth of a child
- Adopting or fostering a new child and caring for a newly placed child within the first year
- Caring for a spouse, child or parent who has a serious health condition
- Having a “qualifying exigency” if the spouse, child or parent of the employee is a military member or on covered active duty
The biggest question often surrounds what qualifies as a “serious health condition.” If it’s the employee’s own health condition, it must prevent the employee from performing their job — though there are many qualifying reasons an employee might not be able to fulfill the duties of their job, including:
- Staying overnight at a hospital
- Being incapacitated for more than three days with ongoing medical treatment
- Experiencing extreme challenges related to pregnancy
- Facing chronic conditions that occasionally leave employees or their family members incapacitated and require treatment at least twice a year
- Encountering “serious conditions“
If your employees aren’t sure whether or not they’re eligible, this quiz from the Department of Labor (DOL) can guide them.
4. What FMLA Resources Are Available
There’s a lot that goes into the FMLA, but employees can get help parsing it. The DOL requires that employers give individual FMLA information to each employee, either through an employee handbook or by providing reference materials for FMLA guidelines to each new hire. But you can go one step further and talk about the FMLA in meetings, periodically reminding your employees about its availability and offering to field questions one on one.
5. How to Avoid FMLA Violations
This is as much for the employer as it is for the employees, since there are a lot of surprising little ways that employers can violate the FMLA. For example, did you know that covered employers must keep this poster displayed in the workplace? Or that while an employee is on FMLA leave, there are limits to how much you can communicate with them? Both employers and employees should go into an FMLA leave with the right expectations to avoid running into violations.
Employers and HR decision-makers are the first line of defense for ensuring employees are well-educated about the FMLA and how to apply for FMLA leave. If you need more information, you can download FMLA guidelines for employers here.
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