Brief Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

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The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires covered employers to offer job-protected, unpaid leave to their employees. It aims to help employees balance the uncertainties of work, life, and family responsibilities. Whether employees take it all at once or intermittently, it guarantees job security and access to health benefits. We’ve created an easy-to-read guide to FMLA, outlining all the ins and outs. It’s everything you need to know for this time of need.

Why is FMLA important?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees with a qualifying event to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period, or up to 26 weeks for caring for a family member who is a covered servicemember. The amount of FMLA that an employee can take depends on their typical work week, so it may be calculated hourly for some employees.

FMLA provides employees with job protection and entitles them to the continuation of their health insurance coverage during their leave. Employers can’t discriminate against employees who exercise their right to take leave. Eligible employees are also entitled to be reinstated to the same or a comparable position they return. For many people, this kind of job protection and continued health insurance is critical.

Who Qualifies for FMLA Leave?

FMLA-covered leave is available only when both an employee and their employer meet specific criteria. You have probably come across the phrase “covered employer,” but what does it mean?

For an employer to be “covered,” they need to tick various boxes. Generally, private employers with 50 or more employees are covered by FMLA. Public agencies, including local, state, or federal, also qualify along with public or private elementary and secondary schools, regardless of the number of employees.

Only “eligible employees” are entitled to take FMLA leave, so what does this entail? An eligible employee is someone who must meet all the following criteria:

  • Has worked for a covered employer for 12 months or more;
  • Has worked at least 1250 hours of service in the 12 months period prior to the leave start; and
  • Works at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles.

Remote employees may be eligible for FMLA if they are provided assignments from and report to an office with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius. FMLA goes on to specify that the determination of how many employees are employed within 75 miles of the worksite is based on the number of employees maintained on the payroll.

When Can I Use FMLA Leave?

Eligible employees may take up to 12 workweeks of FMLA leave (continuous or intermittently) for any of the following reasons:

  • Serious Health Conditions (including pregnancy and birth) that prevent the employee from performing essential functions of their job. Employers may require verification by a qualified physician.
  • Caring for a newborn or the placement of a child with an employee for adoption or foster care.
  • To care for a spouse, child, parent, or next of kin with a Serious Health Condition.
  • Any “qualifying exigency” arising out of the foreign deployment of the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a military member on covered active duty.

An eligible employee may also take up to 26 workweeks of leave to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness if they are a spouse, son, daughter, or parent.

Under certain conditions, employees may choose or be required by their employer to use accrued sick time or PTO to cover some or all of the FMLA leave period. The employer may also provide paid leave depending on the purpose of the leave.

How do I Request FMLA Leave?


Employees must comply with their employer’s standard requirements for leave requests. They need to provide enough information for their employer to reasonably determine whether FMLA applies. Generally, employees must submit their leave request 30 days in advance. When the leave is unforeseeable, employees must provide notice as soon as possible.

When an employee applies for leave, they don’t need to specify that they wish to take FMLA leave. If the employee requests additional leave under the same FMLA-qualifying condition, they must reference the need for FMLA leave.

Communication between employee and employer is vital during this time. Employees are encouraged to update employers with any news or adjustments, ensuring everyone is on the same page.


Covered employers must post a notice explaining the rights and responsibilities under FMLA. FMLA information must be included in their employee handbook, informing new employees upon hire.

When an employee requests leave, the employer must acknowledge that the leave may be for an FMLA-qualifying reason. They need to provide the employee with a Notice of Eligibility and Rights & Responsibilities (WH-381) outlining their eligibility within 5 business days of the leave request, and the employer must confirm the leave deduction from the employee’s FMLA entitlement.

In WH-381, employers must specify if the employee needs to provide any documentation to support their leave. Once the employer has enough information to determine if the employee’s leave qualifies as an FMLA leave, the employer must provide the employee with a written FMLA Designation Notice (WH-382) within 5 business days, absent extenuating circumstances.

Tips for Medical Certification

Employers may require certification from a healthcare provider in support of an employee’s medical leave or if they are caring for a family member with a serious health condition. If this is requested, employers must provide no less than 15 days for the employee to provide the correct documentation.

The certification may include the following:

  • Contact information
  • When the condition began
  • How long the condition may last
  • Additional medical information about the Serious Health Condition
  • Why the patient is unable to work
  • What types of care is required for a family caregiver leave
  • Whether the leave is continuous or intermittent depending on the treatment plan

Finally, when an employee is returning from medical leave, employers may also request a Fitness for Duty certification from their healthcare provider to release them back to work. If this is a requirement, employers must indicate this ahead of time in the FMLA Designation Notice (WH-382).

FMLA Leave Unpacked

The FMLA can be intimidating for both employers and employees. There are several qualifying factors to consider on both ends, and everyone must be up to speed. While this guide outlines the ins and outs of FMLA, a leave management system like Sparrow ensures you’re compliant on all fronts. Request a demo today!