What Are My Rights Under the Family and Medical Leave Act?

Workers should know the FMLA’s significant benefits

By Doug Mentes, Esq. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on December 7, 2023

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The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees eligible employees a certain minimum level of unpaid leave from work for:

  • The birth of a child;
  • Adoption;
  • Serious family health problems; or
  • Their own serious health condition.

The FMLA requires qualified employees to receive unpaid leave rights for 12 weeks every calendar year and continuation of their health insurance coverage as if they had not taken leave.

Federal law requires employers to meet their obligations under FMLA protections or potentially face civil lawsuits.

Who Qualifies For the FMLA?

All public and government employees are covered by the FMLA leave policies. However, only private-sector businesses that employ 50 or more employees (during at least 20 weeks of the year) must offer leave under the FMLA.

To qualify under the FMLA’s employee eligibility rules, the employee must:

  1. Work at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles;
  2. Have worked for the employer for at least a 12-month period (although it’s not necessary for those months to be consecutive);
  3. Have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months immediately preceding the leave (that amounts to working 40 hours per week for approximately 31 weeks or 24 hours per week for approximately 52 weeks).

What Reasons Entitle Employees to Take Leave?

Eligible employees may take up to 12 weeks of leave in a 12-month period for one of the following reasons:

  • The birth or adoption of a child;
  • To care for a spouse, child, or immediate family member who has a serious health condition;
  • For a serious medical condition, medical treatment, or serious injury that makes the employee unable to perform essential functions of their job;
  • For any qualifying emergency that arises out of a child, spouse, or parent being a covered servicemember on active duty in the military or National Guard.

Both mothers and fathers are entitled to birth or adoption leave. In the case of caring for a loved one, the employee must demonstrate they are necessary to provide the care—for example:

  • The family member is unable to care for their own needs because of medical reasons;
  • The family member needs a caregiver for transportation;
  • The family member needs psychological comfort and reassurance.

What Is the Process of Requesting Leave Under the FMLA?

Employees must comply with their employer’s usual and customary eligibility requirements for requesting leave.

They also must provide enough information or medical certification to their employer so that the employer can reasonably determine whether the FMLA may apply to the leave request.

When Must You Request Leave?

Generally, employees must request leave with 30 days advance notice when the need for leave is foreseeable—or as soon as possible under unforeseen circumstances.

Employers can require employees to use other accrued paid leave, such as paid vacation or sick time off, as a part of claiming their leave under the FMLA.

What Happens if an Employer Interferes or Denies Required Leave?

The FMLA prohibits covered employers from interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise of, or the attempt to exercise, any FMLA right.

Employers are prohibited from discriminating or retaliating against an employee or prospective employee for having exercised or attempted to exercise FMLA leave entitlements. Likewise, employers cannot discharge or in any way discriminate against an employee for opposing or complaining about an unlawful employment practice under the FMLA.

Examples of prohibited conduct include:

  • Refusing to authorize FMLA leave for an eligible employee;
  • Discouraging employee leave using FMLA;
  • Manipulating an employee’s work hours to avoid responsibilities under the FMLA;
  • Using an employee’s request for or use of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions, such as hiring, promotions, or disciplinary actions;
  • Counting FMLA leave under no-fault attendance policies.

What Are My Rights When I Return from FMLA Leave?

Upon return from FMLA leave, the law requires an employee to be restored to their original job—or to an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment.

Who Enforces the FMLA’s Provisions?

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) enforces the FMLA.

If an employer interferes with or denies an employee’s rights under the FMLA, the employee can file a complaint with the DOL. The DOL can levy fines or bring a lawsuit. The law also allows injured employees to bring a lawsuit on their own.

Find an Experienced Employment Law Attorney

If your FMLA rights have been denied or interfered with in any way, consider consulting with an experienced employment attorney at the earliest opportunity to discuss your legal options and rights under federal and state law.

For additional information about this legal area, see our overviews on employment law for employeeswrongful termination, and discrimination.

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