Companies, small and large, need to have a firm grasp of laws governing the business world. A lack of knowledge can put a business on shaky legal ground. One important business law related to employees’ rights is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

In 1993, President Clinton signed FMLA into federal law. This landmark legislation gave employees the right to take extended leaves of absence in order to care for themselves and their families, without fear of being fired or losing their benefits. Although there were many employers who allowed extended leaves of absence prior to then (or were under union contract to do so), many others did not. Workers risked losing their jobs in order to take the time off that they needed, whether to recover from a serious illness, help a loved one recover, or care for a newborn (or newly-adopted) child. FMLA made it a national requirement for employers to provide comprehensive job coverage for employees in the event of a major health crisis.

More specifically, FMLA requires employers to provide up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave to full time workers who have been employed for at least a year. Depending on the agreement made between the employer and the employee, employees may continue to be paid for at least part of the time they are absent from the workplace. FMLA guidelines cover an unpaid leave of absence for full time employees if:

  • They’re employed by a business with 50 or more employees who live less than 75 miles away
  • They have worked for that business for at least one year
  • They have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the 12 months preceding the leave of absence
  • They have given 30 days advance notice in the event of a foreseeable need for a leave of absence (a surgical procedure or maternity leave, for example)

Under FMLA, businesses are required to provide:

  • A maximum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year
  • Continued health insurance benefits
  • Job protection

Leaves of absence for part time employees may be prorated, according to the amount of hours per week that they work. Temporary and contract workers are eligible as well, under the agency that placed them in the position—not the company that they are placed with.

Employers are also obligated under federal law to educate their employees about the approval procedure for requesting leave in advance. This can be done by posting the FMLA poster somewhere prominently in the workplace, such as the break room. If a request is approved, the employer must let the employee know in writing, specifying that the leave taken is designated under FMLA, and informing them as to the next steps in the process.

Employers have two days after an employee requests leave to deny the request, and this must be done in writing as well. In such a case, they need to include an explanation of why the request was denied. And if there is any doubt as to the validity of a request, they can ask the employee to provide medical proof of the need for leave. Examples of the types of leave not covered under FMLA include:

  • Taking time off to care for ailing pets or for relatives outside of one’s immediate family
  • Recovering from a cold or flu, or other common ailment
  • Routine medical and dental check-ups

Employers who fail to comply with FMLA regulations face stiff legal penalties and fines, so be sure to stay on top of the requirements and take all of the necessary steps to comply with regulations. Also, keep in mind that some states may have stricter regulations in place (for example, workers in Oregon qualify for unpaid leaves of absence if they’re employed by a business with at least 25 employees—half as many as FMLA specifies).

More detailed information about the Family and Medical Leave Act is available on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.