The Family Medical Leave Act
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows workers to take unpaid time off for serious health conditions or urgent family matters - and it cannot be counted against them.
It's the kind of problem most of us will face sooner or later. How do we get time off from work for urgent family matters? Perhaps you and your spouse have just had a new baby, or maybe one of your parents is seriously ill with no one to give needed care and attention.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may provide the answer. FMLA covers public employees as well as private sector workers who have at least one year of service, have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months, and whose employer has at least 50 employees at worksites within a 75 mile radius. The law is enforced by the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. Both Connecticut and New Jersey have state provisions that vary.
Twelve Weeks of Leave
FMLA provides for unpaid medical leave of up to 12 weeks a year for employees themselves or to care for immediate family members (spouse, child or parent) who have a "serious health condition." In addition an FMLA leave may be taken to care for a newborn child or a child newly adopted or placed in foster care.
Despite the continued opposition of employers to it, FMLA is in fact a modest piece of legislation. In addition, because private employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt, only about two thirds of the workforce are covered by FMLA.
Whatever its inadequacies, FMLA does represent a step forward for workers. If you qualify for an FMLA leave, the boss cannot deny it based on inconvenience or other grounds. Additionally, an employee's medical benefits must be continued during the leave, and he or she is guaranteed their old job or an equivalent position upon returning to work without loss of seniority.
FMLA Rights at a Glance
The right to take up to 12 weeks of medical leave each year on a consecutive or intermittent basis.
The right to take up to 12 weeks of family leave each year to care for a seriously ill child, parent or spouse.
The right to a part-time work schedule when necessitated by medical problems or to care for an ill family member.
The right to decline a light duty job for the first 12 weeks of an injury or illness.
FMLA absences cannot be used as points under a "no fault" attendance policy.
The employer must continue to provide insurance coverage for the duration of the leave. If your contract requires a health care contribution you are required to pay your portion during this period.
What is Covered?
Medical Leave – Up to 12 workweeks of consecutive or intermittent leave in a one-year period as a result of a serious health condition (see box) which makes you unable to do your job.
Family Leave – Consecutive or intermittent leave up to 12 weeks per year to care for a family member with a serious health condition (see box).
Childbirth Leave – Up to 12 consecutive weeks off, at childbirth or prior if unable to work because of pregnancy.
Newborn Child Leave - Birth Mothers – Up to 12 weeks off to care for a child under one year of age. A birth mother can take up to 12 weeks of newborn care leave in the leave year following the one in which she took her childbirth leave. Fathers – Up to 12 consecutive weeks of newborn care leave at any time until the child is one year old.*
Adoptive Care Leave – Up to 12 consecutive weeks for adoption or if a foster child is placed in the home for the first year of placement.
* If spouses work for the same employer, total leave for both can be limited to 12 weeks/year
What is a “Serious Health Condition”?
A condition which requires inpatient hospital care (i.e. an overnight stay);
An injury, illness or other condition lasting more than three consecutive calendar days that involves continuing treatment by a health care provider;
Examples: pneumonia, tonsillitis, broken bones
Pregnancy or prenatal care
A chronic serious health condition;
Examples: arthritis (severe), asthma, back injuries, cancer, colitis, diabetes, epilepsy, lupus, migraine headaches
A long-term or permanently disabling health condition for which treatment may not be effective; Examples: severe stroke, Alzheimer's
A condition requiring multiple treatments to prevent a period of incapacity of more than three consecutive days; Examples: chemotherapy, radiation
The FMLA has some serious shortcomings and pitfalls that workers and local unions should avoid if possible. One of the worst is that the employer can plug in accumulated paid leave days or unused vacation time that you may have coming and apply it to your leave. This can mean, for example, that if you take a leave to care for an ill child thay you have no paid time off coming for the rest of the year.
However, employers may not force workers to take vacation time if the collective bargaining agreement provides otherwise. If the contract allows workers the right to choose their vacation days, via language such as, "Vacations will be scheduled according to individual choice," then the employer cannot apply your vacation time against FMLA leave unless you agree. The union can also grieve vacation substitution if the contract provides that leaves of absence are unpaid.
Additionally, the employer must also comply with the following rules before it can force a worker into using paid vacation during FMLA leave:
- An employer may not force a worker to use paid leave that is not yet available to the employee, such as next year's vacation leave;
An employer may not substitute vacation or personal leave during absences covered by workers’ compensation, disability insurance, or sick pay; and
An employer must notify the employee that it will impose paid leave by the second day after the employee gives notice that s/he needs FMLA leave. If the employer does not have sufficient information to make an FMLA determination until later, it must notify the employee within two days of gaining knowledge that the FMLA applies.
If your leave was foreseeable, you must give the employer at least 30 days notice or the leave can be denied until 30 days has elapsed. The employer can also require a second (and, in the case of a dispute, a third) medical opinion at company expense over whether a serious medical condition exists. And though insurance is continued during the leave, it is the employee's responsibility to make any required contributions at the risk of having coverage canceled.