What is the Family Medical Leave Act?

What is the Family Medical Leave Act?

An introduction to the Family Medical Leave Act

The Family Medical Leave Act, also known as the FMLA, is a labor law, which requires covered employers to provide employees with leave in the event of serious family or health issues. Leave is unpaid, but jobs must be protected. Examples of scenarios in which employees may take leave under the FMLA include pregnancy, adoption, family illness and military leave. The Family Medical Leave Act does not apply to all employers and employees in the US. There are certain groups that qualify, including public agencies, public and private schools and private sector employers with more than 50 employees. The FMLA is designed to benefit both employees and employers, enabling millions of people to take leave to care for family members, including newborn children, adopt children or receive treatment for their own health issues.

Employee entitlements

Under the Family Medical Leave Act, eligible employees are entitled to:

12 weeks of leave per 12-month period:

  • The birth of a child and care for a baby within 12 months of birth
  • Placement of a baby or child for adoption or foster care and care for that child within 1 year of them joining the family
  • Care for a spouse, child or a parent with severe health conditions
  • Serious health issues, which prevent the employee from being able to work
  • Any urgent demand that arises from an employee having a parent, child or spouse who is a covered member of the military

26 weeks of leave per 12-month period:

  • Care for a close relative (parent, spouse, child or next of kin) who is a covered servicemember suffering from illness or injury.

Who is eligible to provide and receive family medical leave?

The Family Medical Leave Act does not apply to all employers and employees in the US. There are specific criteria, which govern which employers and employees are eligible.

Covered employers

Covered employers include:

  • Private companies with more than 50 employees during at least 20 working weeks of the year in the current or previous year.
  • Public agencies, including local, state and federal departments: all agencies are covered, regardless of the number of employees.
  • Public and private elementary and secondary schools: all these schools are covered, regardless of the number of employees.

Eligible employees

Eligible employees include:

  • Employees who work for covered employers, as outlined above.
  • Employees who have worked for a covered employer within the last 12 months.
  • Employees who work at a base or location where an employer has a minimum of 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.
  • In some cases, there are special service hours requirements: for airline crew, for example, staff must have completed at least 1,250 hours of service for the employer during the 12-month period preceding their leave.

Under the Family Medical Leave Act, which was signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, employees who take unpaid leave in line with the terms of the act can return to work, assuming the same position. If the role is no longer available, they will be offered an alternative post that is equal in both status and salary.

FMLA labor law posters

All covered employers are required to display a Department of Labor poster outlining the eligibility criteria, the complaints process and provisions of the FMLA. The poster must be visible in all locations, regardless of whether there are eligible employees.

The role of the Family Medical Leave Act

The Family Medical Leave Act recognizes the difficulty in balancing work with caring for relatives, bringing children into the world, adopting or providing foster care for children and looking after individual health and wellbeing. This labor law is designed to eliminate the difficult choices employees, particularly parents and caregivers, have to make when they are unwell or a close relative needs their help and assistance. In the past, many employees would have to choose between going to work and caring for children or parents. The FMLA is designed to reduce the burden and enable employees to take leave without worrying about losing their job. The changing composition of the family unit, the increase in the number of working mothers and a rise in households where both parents work have influenced policy-making. The FMLA acknowledges the challenges families face, providing options for parents and employees who need to take time away from work to undergo treatment or rehabilitation or to provide care for others.

Statistics show that 20 million people take unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act every year. Around 20% of employees take leave following the birth of a child or the placement of a child through adoption or foster care. Over 50% take leave as a result of individual injuries or illness, while 18% take time away from work to care for a parent, spouse or child.

While there are obvious advantages of having the option to take leave for employees, research indicates that employers can also benefit from the FMLA. A study based in California found that approximately 90% of employers said that family leave had a positive impact on employees and 96% of employees said that the FMLA had a positive effect on their morale and wellbeing.


The Family Medical Leave Act is a labor law, which was introduced in 1993 to provide employees with the option to take unpaid, job-protected leave for serious health and family issues. Under the guidelines, covered employers must allow employees to take unpaid leave while keeping their jobs safe. Examples of scenarios that are covered include giving birth, adopting or providing foster care for a child, taking time for serious personal health issues and providing care for a spouse, parent or child. Employees are also permitted to take leave to care for servicemembers who are ill or injured. In most cases, a period of 12 working weeks is allowed per year, with the exception of caring for servicemembers. The period is extended to 26 weeks in this case. The FMLA provides options and flexibility for parents, employees who have health problems and those with responsibilities for caring for close relatives, and it can also provide benefits for employers by boosting wellbeing and morale.

Apr 14th 2021 Donald Butts

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