What is the Family Medical Leave Act?

wiseGEEK Writer

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) refers to a US Federal law passed in 1993, which gave many workers certain rights to take a specific amount of unpaid leave per year under defined circumstances without jeopardizing their positions at work. The law, more accurately called the Family and Medical Leave Act, was enacted under President William Clinton's administration. Some criticize it for not reaching far enough, and others believe FMLA interferes with the rights of employers to dictate the terms on which employees will work for them.

An employer cannot demote an employee for taking leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.
An employer cannot demote an employee for taking leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.

The basic idea of the Family Medical Leave Act is that sometimes it’s necessary to take time off from work when important family circumstances arise or if emergencies occur that need attention. While some companies understand about time off requests, others don’t, and would use such requests to terminate or demote employees. Certain situations now make that step impossible for most employers who honor FMLA. These include the birth of a baby or adoption of a child, the necessity of providing care to a family member that is either a child, parent or spouse, a longer recovery time for an employee or an employee’s family member, and any leave circumstances necessary if a member of the armed services who is a family member is deployed, injured, or must relocate.

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.

This amount of leave available under the Family Medical Leave Act is usually a total of six weeks in one year. All time doesn’t have to be taken at once. Some people need sporadic leave to treat an ongoing condition, so they might occasionally need half a day off to get themselves or a family member to a doctor, and needing that day, provided leave has been granted, doesn’t negatively impact work status.

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People are only protected by the Family Medical Leave Act if they have worked for an employer for at least a year. The employer must employ more than 50 workers because the FMLA recognizes the possible undue hardship for small businesses. Yet, when these conditions are met, the employer cannot fire the employee for asking for FMLA and a business can’t attempt retribution like demoting employees or lowering their salaries. If an employee’s job is reassigned during the leave, the employer must provide a similar position at equal pay when the employee returns to work.

Employees don’t file under the Family Medical Leave Act for all purposes, but they should plan to if they intend an absence or foresee a series of absences that arise out of family needs or personal or family illness. Retroactive filing or filing by an employee's spouse may be possible when sudden grave circumstances arise, like serious illness or accident. FMLA is a measure that protects jobs since employees cannot be punished for requesting legitimate leave. Employers may require proof like doctor’s notes or documentation that shows the employee’s right to make the request.

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