Know Your Rights: The Family and Medical Leave Act

by | Feb 12, 2013 | Paid Leave

Cross-posted from MomsRising.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – the nation’s first and only federal law that helps women and men meet their responsibilities at home and on the job. And even though the law has been a huge success, new data from the Department of Labor reveal that many people still aren’t familiar with the protection it offers. Nearly 60 percent of workers in the United States are covered by the FMLA, but 29 percent of them don’t know it.

Knowing your FMLA rights is important (below, we’ll let you know what they are!), but we also need to advocate for an expanded FMLA that applies to more workers in more situations and a national paid leave program that means more workers can afford to take the time away from their jobs that they need. No worker should have to choose between job and family.

So, in honor of the FMLA’s 20th year, let’s go over the basics, and then share them with friends and family. The following is intended to be a general guide – not legal advice that applies to a particular situation. Always consult a lawyer or local legal aid clinic before taking legal action.

What is the Family and Medical Leave Act or “FMLA”?

The FMLA has been a federal law since 1993. It requires certain employers to provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year to:

  • Care for a newborn or newly adopted child (including foster children);
  • Care for a seriously ill family member (defined as a spouse, child or parent);
  • Recover from a serious illness (including pregnancy or childbirth);
  • Care for an injured servicemember (up to 26 weeks); or deal with situations related to a family member’s deployment.

For the birth or placement of a child, the leave must be taken all at once unless your employer agrees to intermittent leave. When medically necessary, you can take leave intermittently without needing your employer’s permission.

Are you eligible for FMLA leave?

Generally, you are eligible for FMLA leave if you have been employed at your current job for at least one year and 1,250 hours AND you work at a business or public agency (including a school and state, local or federal employer) with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.

What qualifies as a “serious health condition” under the FMLA?

There is no list of conditions that qualify for FMLA leave. Instead, a serious health condition is defined by its effect. It must involve either inpatient care at a hospital or medical facility, or continuing treatment by a health care provider. “Continuing treatment by a health care provider” covers many situations including:

  • Pregnancy or prenatal care;
  • Chronic conditions that extend over a long period of time and require periodic visits to a health care provider (e.g., asthma, diabetes);
  • A permanent, long-term condition for which treatment may be ineffective (e.g., Alzheimer’s, a severe stroke, terminal cancer);
  • Restorative surgery or treatment for a condition which, if left untreated, would likely result in a period of incapacity of more than three days (e.g., chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer, dialysis); or
  • Any health condition that causes a period of three consecutive days of incapacity and is accompanied by at least two visits to a health care provider or one visit and continued monitoring by the health care provider.

What about state laws regarding family and medical leave?

The FMLA sets forth the minimum standards to which employers must comply. Some states have laws that offer greater protection for employees. To find out more about whether or not your state has greater protections, visit

Am I entitled to paid leave under the FMLA?

No, the FMLA requires only unpaid leave. You may be entitled to paid leave under your employer’s short-term disability program. You may also be able to – or have to – use your sick time or vacation time while you are on FMLA leave.

Five states – California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island – and Puerto Rico have Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) programs that provide some pay when a worker has a serious health condition, including pregnancy. California and New Jersey have paid family leave insurance programs that disburse payments from an employee-paid insurance fund when workers need time off to care for a family member or to bond with a new child.

The FMLA means that people can take the time they need when serious medical needs arise – without having to worry about losing their jobs or their health insurance. Unfortunately, 40 percent of the workforce is not eligible for it, and many more cannot afford to take unpaid leave. That is why Congress needs to expand the FMLA to make leave available to more people for more reasons and to establish a national paid leave insurance program, so that workers don’t have to sacrifice their financial security when they need time away from work.

For a more detailed FAQ on the FMLA and the protection it provides, along with more information on proposals to address the law’s gaps and establish a paid leave program, visit