Family and Medical Leave: Legislation and Purpose

Family and Medical Leave: Legislation and Purpose
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  • 0:06 A Need for Help
  • 1:09 Family Medical Leave Act
  • 3:52 Purpose
  • 5:28 Who Is Covered?
  • 8:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The Family Medical Leave Act allows an employee to take an unpaid leave of absence from his or her job for certain family or medical reasons, without losing the job and without losing health insurance coverage. This lesson explains the Family Medical Leave Act.

A Need for Help

Jon is a single dad. He's an accountant for a large imports company where he's worked for five years. He has three kids, and together, they're a middle-income family. A few months ago, his youngest daughter, Ava, started getting sick. She missed a lot of school and he missed a lot of work while they attended doctor's appointments.

Ava was diagnosed with leukemia and is now being treated at a children's hospital, but that hospital is an hour away from Jon's home. Jon has already used all of his sick leave and vacation time while caring for Ava, so Jon's worried about what to do next.

The Family Medical Leave Act

Jon needs to talk to his employer about the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. This is a federal law enacted in 1993 that allows many workers, under certain circumstances, the right to take a specific amount of unpaid leave per year without losing their positions. Because the law allows workers to take leave for both family and medical reasons, the law is often referred to as the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The FMLA allows qualifying employees to take up to 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period while maintaining their group health insurance coverage. The weeks don't have to be taken all at once. Some workers may need to take all the weeks together, like when using FMLA for a maternity leave. Other workers may need to take a half-day here or there, like when using FMLA to seek treatment for a chronic illness.

Note that the employee isn't paid while on leave. The important thing about the FMLA is that the employee enjoys job-protection, meaning an employee like Jon can take a leave and have a job to go back to. When all necessary conditions are met, the FMLA prevents an employer from firing, demoting, or lowering the salary of an employee who properly uses FMLA leave. The employee isn't guaranteed his or her exact position, but is guaranteed a similar position with equal pay.

The FMLA specifies these reasons for leave:

  • The birth of a child and to care for that child within a year of the birth;
  • The adoption or placement of a foster child and to care for that child within a year of placement;
  • To care for the employee's spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition;
  • A serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of the job; and
  • Any qualifying need arising because the employee's spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a military member on covered active duty.

An employee may also qualify for 26 workweeks of leave during a 12-month period to care for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness if the employee is the service member's spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin. This is a newer provision of the FMLA, added in 2008, known as the Military Caregiver Leave.

Purpose of the FMLA

The year 2013 marks the 20-year anniversary of the FMLA. Reminiscing, former President Bill Clinton wrote, '…single parent households had become much more common in America, growing from 16 to 27 percent of families between 1975 and 1992… the question most Americans wanted those of us running for the White House… to answer were: how can we restore the American Dream for those who work hard and play by the rules... How can hard-pressed parents do a good job at work and at home with their kids?'

This is why, he says, he signed the FMLA less than three weeks after becoming president. The FMLA is designed to address these issues by providing America's workers with a tool to better balance work and family. At the time of its passing, the FMLA was promoted as a law that would enhance the economic stability and security of families while also upholding the nation's interest in protecting the integrity of families.

For the first time, the federal government formally recognized that sometimes it's necessary and unavoidable for workers to take off work for important family and medical circumstances. Historically, some companies have always been cooperative and understanding regarding these circumstances. But some companies would terminate or demote employees during their dire or vulnerable times.

Who Is Covered Under FMLA?

The FMLA, however, doesn't apply to all workers. First, the employer must be covered under the FMLA. Generally speaking, the FMLA only applies to businesses that employ at least 50 people because the government recognizes the hardship the FMLA might cause small businesses.

The FMLA applies to:

  • Any employer in the private sector who engages in business; or
  • Any industry or activity affecting commerce or business; and
  • Who has 50 or more employees each working day during at least 20 calendar weeks.

The FMLA is written to include all large- and medium-sized businesses, no matter what type of business. Notice that the FMLA doesn't distinguish between for-profit, non-profit, goods businesses, or service providers. However, the FMLA purposely excludes small businesses and also seasonal businesses. For example, a Christmas tree farm that employs 100 people, but for only 12 weeks of the year, wouldn't fall under the FMLA. But a large business, like the import business that Jon works for, would be covered.

The FMLA also applies to the government itself. This includes:

  • All public agencies, including state and local governments; and
  • Local education agencies, including both public and private schools.

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