Take Care of Loved Ones or Yourself with the FMLA

Take Care of Loved Ones or Yourself with the FMLA

You're at work, finishing up an assignment at your desk, when the phone rings. It's your 81-year-old widowed mother's neighbor calling to tell you your mom has been hospitalized with a suspected stroke. She'll be OK in the long run, you learn, but she's going to be laid up for some time and won't be able to meet her own basic needs. 

All sorts of thoughts start racing through your mind, including, "Who's going to take care of Mom after she leaves the hospital?"

Thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you have the option of being that person, and you can spend some significant time with your mother without fear of losing your job while you're away from it.

The Specifics

Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993, the FMLA allows eligible American workers to take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for one or more of the following reasons:

  • To take care of an immediate family member -- specifically, a parent, spouse or child -- who has a serious health condition.
  • To take care of yourself if you have a serious health condition of your own.
  • To take care of your newborn baby in the weeks after the child is born.
  • To take care of a child you've adopted in the weeks after the child arrives in your midst.

A 2008 amendment to the FMLA law allows a covered worker to take leave if that worker's spouse, child or parent is on active duty or called to active duty as a member of the National Guard or Reserves.

When you take a leave under the FMLA, you can do so knowing that the law requires your employer to assign you to your old job when you return or, at the very least, to an equivalent job with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment, according to the US Department of Labor (DOL). Your employer is also required to maintain group health insurance coverage for you, assuming you had such coverage before your leave.

What Employees and Employers Think

This is not a perfect law by any means, and both employees and employers criticize it.

Perhaps most significantly from the employees' perspective, the FMLA applies only to organizations that employ 50 or more people; organizations with fewer than 50 employees aren't bound by the FMLA's requirements. Although, as a practical matter, many smaller organizations do voluntarily comply. (Note: The FMLA applies to all public agencies, no matter how many employees they have. You don't need to worry about the 50-employees stipulation if you work for such an organization.)

Meanwhile, some employers say the FMLA has been abused by employees who have taken the law's reference to "serious health condition" to the extreme. In a January 2003 survey of human resources professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, half of the 416 respondents said they'd approved FMLA leave requests they believed were not legitimate for fear of breaching DOL interpretations of the law.

"Unfortunately, the FMLA has become a national sick-leave policy where pink eye, sprained ankles and the common cold have become serious medical conditions," says SHRM President Susan Meisinger.

Despite the debates about the FMLA in many quarters, the law is on the books and being used widely. Indeed, almost 24 million American workers took advantage of the law between January 1999 and October 2000, according to DOL figures.

To learn more about the FMLA, check out these DOL resources: