What is the Family Leave Act?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The Family Leave Act, or Family and Medical Leave Act, is a US federal law enacted in 1993. It allows qualified employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year, based on their serious medical needs or those of an immediate family member. This leave cannot affect one’s status as an employee, and employees who take leave are allowed to return to their original positions upon returning to work. The benefits of the Family Leave Act have been extolled by many workers, though some feel that the pro-employee stance is detrimental to corporations.

The FMLA allows individuals to take time off work to care for ill family members.
The FMLA allows individuals to take time off work to care for ill family members.

According to the Family Leave Act, an employee usually must work at least 24 hours per week for a year at a company to be eligible. Eligibility may be calculated on a shorter time period if the employee has worked full time. In general most employees are considered eligible if they work full time for a period greater than 7 months.

The Family Medical Leave Act says a woman can't lose her job for taking time off with a new baby.
The Family Medical Leave Act says a woman can't lose her job for taking time off with a new baby.

The Family Leave Act also determines eligibility by the nature of the medical needs. A person can benefit from the Family Leave Act if he or she suffers from a temporary disabling illness. Women often use the Family Leave Act as maternity leave after a pregnancy, thus assuring they can return to their jobs without recrimination.

If the person affected is not the employee, then it must be the spouse, dependent or parent of the employee. The Family Leave Act would not, for instance, cover someone taking time off to care for an in-law or a sibling, unless that person is a dependent of the employee. However, the Family Leave Act could be used to care for a spouse affected by caring for an in-law, if such care was causing the spouse great mental duress as specified by a licensed medical professional.

In virtually all cases, the Family Leave Act provides confidentiality for the worker requesting it. The company may require certification that a serious medical condition exists, but they cannot inquire as to the nature of the condition or as to who is affected. Confidentiality may be affected by conditions that will be covered through health insurance. New federal laws are being enacted to make health coverage information less accessible to the human resource workers of a company.

Confidentiality provides for people with sensitive conditions such as mental illness or drug addiction to seek treatment without feeling that they will be ostracized as a result. Often companies illegally ask for the employee to explain the need to make use of the Family Leave Act. However, legally, an employee does not need to provide an explanation, merely a doctor’s note saying that the employee or relative is medically eligible for family leave.

The Family Leave Act also provides for an employee to be absent sporadically for treatment or care throughout the work year, provided these days do not add up to more than the 12 weeks of leave. These days cannot be considered as part of an attendance record provided they are specified as Family Leave. Should the need for leave extend beyond the applied for year, the employee may reapply for another 12 weeks at the termination of the first year’s request.

If one has a spouse or child with a chronic condition who needs intermittent care, applying for family leave should be considered as it may make quite a difference in how one is perceived at work. Most companies consider frequent absences as reason to terminates employment. By applying for an absence through the Family Leave Act, one’s absences cannot be considered as unexcused absences and can form no basis for termination.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I have a paper from my MD which puts me on Family and Medical Leave. I am bipolar, and teach school. Can I leave whenever I feel the stress or need and go home any time I want to?


I have applied for a job where I would be responsible for explaining benefits to new employees. This is a new field for me and I would like to understand COBRA, HIPA and FLA a little better before the interview. Thank you for shedding some light on FLA with this article.


I have dealt with a similar sitation and yes that is legal. Due to the HIPPA act, HR cannot discuss your son's medical history with anyone. HR has to have documentation of when you are absent from work, because you only have 12 weeks of FMLA. --CJ


I have a child that has just turned 18. I have the new jersey family leave. my employer is asking me to bring a note every time i take my son to the doctor. is that legal?? my son also requires around the clock care and can not be unsupervised. there are times when i may need to call out to tend to his needs when he has psychotic episode. does my employer need to know every time my child has psychotic episode in which i sometimes handle at home? please let me know.

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