The passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993 was a big win for employees who are facing a family or health-related crisis.
But it has also had some serious implications for employers, especially small and medium-sized business employers that qualify for coverage under FMLA guidelines.
The intent behind FMLA was to help workers balance the demands of their personal and work lives. After an initial period of confusion, most employers have accepted the fact that FMLA provides a net benefit for businesses as well as workers. Although FMLA leaves disrupt normal work routines, they generally produce a more satisfied and focused workforce.
It's important for new business owners to understand that FMLA is not an unlimited, free pass for employees and that some businesses may even be exempt from coverage. If you're unfamiliar with FMLA, here's what you need to know to maintain compliance in your organization.
If they're eligible, FMLA allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month time period without fear of losing their jobs. Leaves can only be taken for specific medical or family-related reasons, but employees may also qualify for up 26 weeks of leave to attend to the needs of a family member who suffered serious injury or illness during active military duty.
Qualifying reasons for a leave can include the birth (or adoption) of a child, the care of a close relative with a serious illness, a personal medical crisis, or an "exigency" arising from the participation of a close family member in military service.
In order to qualify for a FMLA leave, the employee must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months (non-contiguous) and must have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours during the previous 12 months. At the end of the leave, the employee is entitled to return to his original job or be placed in an equivalent job with equal pay, benefits, and employment terms.
Implications for Employers
All public agency employers (including school, state, local and federal) are covered by FMLA. Additionally, any business with 50 or more employees located within 75 miles of the individual's worksite are also subject to FMLA coverage for their workers.
The employee threshold means that many small business employers are exempt from FMLA. However, as a gesture of goodwill, exempt employers may want to consider including FMLA leave as an employee benefit, with the stipulation that it's being offered at the employer's discretion rather than as an act of legal compliance.