The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was designed to solve a big problem millions of women face every year: how to take the time needed to take care of a new baby, a sick relative, or a personal medical emergency while maintaining job security.
Unlike countries like Bulgaria, which extends more than 58 weeks of maternity leave while offering 90% of pay; or Greece, which offers almost 22 weeks of paid maternity leave, women who live in the U.S. may not get any maternity leave whatsoever from their employers since it's not required that employers provide it to workers.
What is available for women — and men — who want or need to stay home because of an illness or to care for a child is the FMLA.
While the program does not offer paid leave, it does provide job protection, which is critical for women who have worked hard to climb the corporate ladder.
What does the Family Medical Leave Act cover?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the FMLA offers the following:
- Unpaid, job-protected leave for the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth
- Time to care for a spouse, child,12 months or parent who has a serious health condition
- Leave to care for a child recently adopted or placed with the employee through foster care
In addition, the FMLA also offers 26 workweeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period to care for a covered military service member with a serious injury or illness if the employee is that person's spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin.
Who qualifies for the Family Medical Leave Act?
Before you speak to your employer about taking advantage of the FMLA, be aware that some conditions may exclude you from receiving FMLA coverage, such as working for an employer with less than 50 employees.
The provisions for using the FMLA include:
- Coverage for employees who have worked 1,250 hours during the 12 months before starting leave. The 12 months of leave are not required to be consecutive.
- Only employers with more than 50 workers at a location — or within 75 miles of that location — are required to offer FMLA coverage.
- Employers must notify employees within five business days of whether the employee is eligible for FMLA leave.
- Employees who know they're going to need time off — such as for the birth of a child or planned medical treatment — need to provide employers with 30 days' notice. If that's not possible, then the FMLA asks for "as soon as practicable" notice.
- Employees must give employers "sufficient information" to make the employer aware of the FMLA need for leave, approximately when it begins, and the length of time required. That "sufficient information" requirement can include information that the employee is hospitalized or is caring for a family member under the care of a physician.
- No employee is required to supply medical records to the employer. Still, the employer does have the legal right to require certified medical information stating that a serious medical condition exists.
- "Job protection" under the act means that you must be given your original job or another job that is similar when you return.
- An employer must continue to offer you group health benefits during leave.
What's on the horizon?
President Joe Biden has proposed the American Families Plan that raises $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years through higher taxes on the most wealthy Americans. The money gained from these taxes will be used, among other things, to offer paid family leave up to $4,000 a month. A recent YouGov poll of 21,000 adult Americans shows that 68% say companies should offer both mothers and fathers paid parental leave, with more women (75%) supporting it than men (61%).
While it's unclear whether Congress will pass such legislation, employees need to familiarize themselves with the FMLA and their employer's current benefits coverage to ensure they follow the rules to receive family leave when they need it.