By: Liz Ernst

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law enacted in 1993 to protect employees’ jobs in the event that the must take unpaid leave due to childbirth, serious illness, or to care for an immediate family member who is seriously ill.

Benefits available to U.S. workers through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can be a godsend for those who need to take time off from work for medical reasons, or to care for family members suffering from a serious illness or recovering from illness or injury.

At its base, FMLA benefits provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period. Although employers are not required to pay employees during FMLA leave periods, they are required to hold the employee’s job until their return, or provide a different job with equivalent pay and benefits.

It is always a good idea to ask your employer what FMLA benefits they offer upon being hired, if the human resources department does not automatically provide these details. Some employers offer enhanced benefits such as paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, and other perks that are not required under FMLA guidelines.

FMLA Benefits

The Family and Medical Leave Act was designed to make sure U.S. workers have some leeway when it comes to balancing the needs of their families with their jobs. Although employers are not required to pay employees during a FMLA absence, they are required to maintain any employee health insurance plan already in place at the time the leave begins.

Who is Covered?

  • Employeeswho have worked for the same employer for a minimum of 12 months and have put in at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months immediately prior to the FMLA leave.


Under FMLA, employers must provide an eligible employee up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave within any 12-month time frame, for any covered circumstance including:


  • Childbirth and care of the newborn child.
  • Adoption of a child.
  • Placement of a foster child with the employee.
  • Inability to work due to a serious illness or injury.
  • The need to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) who is seriously ill or injured.


  • Employees with spouses, children, or parents currently serving in military active duty, or who have been called up for active duty can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under FMLA in the event of a qualified emergency developing from the family member’s active military duty.  FMLA coverage may extend for up to 26 weeks annually when loved ones in the military are seriously injured or become ill during active duty.

What are the Employers’ Responsibilities?

  • Private employerswith 50 or more employee working within 75 miles of the employer’s worksite are required to provide FMLA benefits. Those employers with fewer than 50 employees have the option of providing comparable benefits to their staff, although it is not a requirement.
  • Public agencies including public elementary and secondary schools, as well as private elementary and secondary schools are required to provide FMLA benefits regardless of the number of employees.

Employees who are eligible for FMLA leave can take up to 12 weeks of leave to access treatment for an illness or to recover from an illness or injury. The FMLA has wide-ranging guidelines to define those health conditions deemed serious enough for inclusion. Pregnancy (including absences due to morning sickness and prenatal doctor visits), physical or mental impairments that may require multiple absences for treatment, asthma, diabetes and post-surgery examinations are just a few of the conditions covered through FMLA guidelines.

Cosmetic surgery, routine dental or medical care, colds, headaches and the like are not included in FMLA guidelines, and employers may require employees to apply any paid sick or vacation time they have accrued during absences for non-FMLA approved conditions.

FMLA does not affect applicable Worker’s Compensation benefits for employees who become injured or ill on the job.

FMLA benefits can be applied intermittently, so an employee may be able to work on a part time basis under certain circumstances.

For workers living in California, a recently established Paid Family Leave (PFL) insurance program administered by the State Disability Insurance Program works with FMLA guidelines and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) employee leave program to provide paid leave for up to six weeks. Some states also offer their own employee leave programs and benefits. Check with your employer and do a bit of online research to understand your full FMLA rights.