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Family and Medical Leave: Overview

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that lets covered employees take extended time away from work, to handle certain family or medical needs.  Many states have similar laws that may provide additional coverage above and beyond that outlined in the FMLA. Following is a brief discussion of employees' rights under the FMLA.

Covered Employers

Not every employer is required to provide its employees with family or medical leave. Federal law states that an employer is required to provide eligible employees with leave if the employer is either:

  • A state, local, or federal governmental agency; or
  • A private business engaged in, or affecting, interstate commerce, that employed fifty or more employees in twenty or more weeks in the current or prior calendar year.

This criteria may sound complicated, but in reality virtually every business in the U.S. engages in, or affects, interstate commerce.  The "fifty or more employees" standard includes everyone on the employer's payroll, including part-time employees, employees on approved leave, and leased or temporary employees.

Covered Employees

An employee who works for a covered employer is eligible for leave if he or she worked for the employer for at least twelve months, and for at least 1,250 hours over the twelve months immediately preceding the need for leave.  The employee must also work at a worksite in the United States, or a U.S. territory, at which the employer has at least fifty employees within seventy-five miles.

The requirements set out here are those under the federal FMLA.  Laws in your state may have other requirements that provide leave to more (or different) employees.

What Leave is Provided?

A covered employer must provide eligible employees with a maximum of twelve weeks of leave.  The leave may be unpaid, but it may be combined with accrued paid leave (such as vacation or sick leave). 

An eligible employee may take leave:

  • For the birth, adoption, or placement of a child;
  • To care for a spouse, minor, or incompetent child, or parent who has a "serious health condition" (more on this below); or
  • To handle the employee's own serious health condition that makes him or her unable to work.

A "serious health condition" is defined as an illness, injury, impairment, or condition that involves:

  • Hospital care;
  • Absence from work, plus continuing treatment;
  • Pregnancy;
  • Treatment for a chronic condition;
  • Permanent long-term supervision; or
  • Multiple treatments.

Employees may be required to provide advance notice, if possible, and medical certification of the need for leave.  An employer who provides health insurance is required to maintain coverage for an employee on leave on the same terms as if the employee had continued to work.

Returning to Work

When an employee returns from leave granted by the FMLA, he or she is entitled to be restored to his or her former job, or to an equivalent job, with equivalent pay, benefits, and other terms of employment.  Taking leave may not result in the loss of any benefit to which an employee was entitled before taking leave, and may not be counted against an employee under a "no-fault" attendance policy.

Certain employees may be denied restoration of their jobs if returning them to their former positions would result in substantial and grievous economic harm to the employer.  A "key" employee is defined as a salaried employee who is among the highest paid ten percent of the employees within a seventy-five mile radius.  An employer must notify an employee that he or she is a key employee when the employee gives notice of intent to take leave, and must notify the employee when a decision is made to deny reinstatement.

Legal Help with FMLA Rights

The Family and Medical Leave Act (and similar state laws) can be an immense help to employees who have important family obligations but who also need to be able to rely on steady employment.  If you are an employee with questions about your rights under the FMLA, or if you feel that those rights may have been violated by your employer, talk to an experienced employees' rights attorney in your area to discuss your options.

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