At some point or another, every human resources employee helps to facilitate a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). HR personnel can probably recite FMLA regulations in their sleep, but the average employee is pretty much out of touch with what the law entitles them to, and quite often they don't realize what’s actually required of their employers.
FMLA rules are designed to protect both the employer and the employee. From an employee’s perspective, they’re able to take necessary medical leave without fear of losing their job. For employers, it helps them work toward the goal of true, equal opportunity employment for both men and women.
To help make your life as an HR professional just a little bit easier, we’ve put this handy guide of FMLA rules and regulations together for you — including some that are specific to our home state of Arizona's FMLA laws. Feel free to download this additional resource guide to include it in your employee handbook or to email to employees who are inquiring about FMLA guidelines.
About the Family Medical Leave Act
The Family Medical Leave Act took nearly a decade to become law, with its first draft being written in 1984 by the Women’s Legal Defense Fund. It was introduced every year from then until 1993, and was even passed by Congress in 1991 and then again in 1992, but was vetoed both times by President George H. Bush. Congress passed the legislation once more in 1993, which President Bill Clinton signed into law just 16 days after taking office.
Prior to FMLA regulations, the only legislation that discussed family leaves of absence was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which amended “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy.”
The impetus for new FMLA guidelines was the changing family landscape. Women were working outside the home at an increasing rate and becoming more highly regarded members of the workforce with each passing year.
By 1998, “52 percent of women with children under the age of 1 were employed, compared with just two-fifths [40 percent] 10 years earlier.” More than half of women with very small children were working, making their income important to their families and their livelihoods. And by 2012, 65 percent of women in the labor force had children under the age of 6.
Since its passing, FMLA has been used more than 200 million times by people who need some time off work to take care of themselves, their immediate family members, and their children. There are very few families anymore that can afford to have one parent stay at home, making FMLA more important than ever.
What the Law Says
FMLA regulations are most frequently associated with maternity leave, leading some people to believe the “M” even stands for “maternity.” However, FMLA rules cover far more than child-related absences. FMLA regulations require employers (whether public or private, including school systems) with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius to provide “up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year” for any of the following reasons:
- for the birth and care of the newborn child of an employee
- for placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care
- to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition
- or to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition
FMLA rules stipulate that in order to be eligible for protection under the law, the employee requesting leave must have worked for the company for at least 12 months, worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year, and work at a location that employs at least 50 employees within a 75 mile radius.
While FMLA guidelines are most often applied after the birth of a child, they can also be used prior to the birth in some instances. For pregnant women, any time taken off due to complications prior to the birth can be counted against the 12 weeks of leave.
Perhaps most importantly, FMLA regulations also require that employer-sponsored health coverage be maintained during employees’ leave of absence. This provision allows employees to take the necessary time off work (as long as it falls within the 12-week window), without being afraid their health coverage will end, which is truly a critical need for most people taking medical leave. People receiving cancer treatments will be making multiple trips to the hospital, post-operative patients may need follow-up visits, and partpartum women will be required to see their obstetrician at least once for a checkup after giving birth.
FMLA in Arizona
While Arizona doesn’t have a statewide FMLA law, it did pass a paid sick leave law that went into effect on July 1, 2017. In addition, all businesses with 50 or more employees must follow federal FMLA regulations.
The Arizona paid sick leave law requires that employers with 15 or more employees provide at least one week of paid leave (amounting to 40 hours) to every employee, regardless of full or part-time status. Employers with 14 or fewer employees aren’t exempt, but they only have to provide 24 hours of paid leave. Because the regulations on how this leave can be used were left pretty broad, this sick time could be saved and used for any kind of personal or family illness, as well as parental leave.
Arizona FMLA laws also provide specific instructions for state employees. Eligible state employees are entitled to an approved period (up to 40 hours per year) of paid absence due to:
- Illness or injury that renders the employee unable to perform the duties of the employee’s position
- Disability of the employee that is caused by pregnancy, childbirth, miscarriage, or abortio
- Examination or treatment of the employee by a licensed healthcare practitioner, or
- Illness, injury, disability caused by pregnancy or childbirth, or examination or treatment by a licensed healthcare practitioner of an employee’s spouse, dependent child, or parent
This means that for Arizona state employees, one week of their medical leave could be paid, plus any additional sick time or vacation time that’s been approved during the federally allowed 12-week FMLA period.
What the Law Doesn’t Require of Employers
Most of the confusion surrounding FMLA rules stems from the matter of compensation. Because so many employers (especially large ones) choose to offer paid maternity and paternity leave, the law is oftentimes confused with specific companies’ policies.
Companies like Amazon, Deloitte, Facebook, Netflix, Johnson & Johnson, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Google offer generous paid leave policies, ranging from 12 weeks to a full year. But even if a business doesn’t offer paid leave, many companies allow their employees to use their accumulated paid time off during their leave (be sure to check your company’s policy before going on leave).
Further confusion stems from recent state legislation requiring employers to provide paid leave (which is entirely separate from federal FMLA rules). For example, New York Governor Cuomo signed a 2016 law allowing both full-time and part-time employees of private companies to take up to eight weeks of leave while still earning 50 percent of their wages. This law went into effect on January 1, 2018 and expands over the course of four years, eventually allowing for up to 12 weeks of paid leave at 67 percent of wages.
However, federal FMLA regulations do not grant paid leave to any employee. It simply secures a job for you while you take time off work to recover from a major medical event, care for an immediate family member, or take care of your new child. Unless your company has a paid leave policy or your state of residence has a paid leave law on the books (like Arizona has now), you’re not entitled to paid leave.
Following FMLA Rules
While it isn’t explicitly mandated by FMLA guidelines, many employers require a doctor’s note at the end of an employee’s medical leave, stating that the employee is cleared for normal activities and that working won’t be a hazard to the person’s physical health. This practice generally helps protect the employer, but also encourages the employee to check in with their doctor to make sure there aren’t any restrictions on their ability to work, preventing possible injury or complications.
As an HR professional, you’ll want to make arrangements for your employee’s leave as far in advance as possible. A person’s scheduled last day of work will be busy enough without having to nail down details about their return. Of course, it’s possible that things will change and an exact return date isn’t possible, so make sure you have updated personal contact information, such as a phone number and email address.
In addition, make sure the plan for returning is settled before the person begins their leave of absence. Will they need special allowances because of their recovery from surgery? Will the working mom need a place to pump breast milk? Again, you couldn’t possibly anticipate every detail, but having some basic procedures in place will help smooth out the process.
In Closing (Free Download)
We hope that you've found this overview of FMLA rules and regulations helpful. To assist you on an on-going basis we've put together a convenient four page downloadable chart to use as a resource guide. It provides details about key aspects of FMLA regulations.
Interested in learning more about FMLA? Leave us a comment below or contact us. We’d love to hear from you!