Understanding Who Qualifies for FMLA Benefits
When you are experiencing a serious medical issue or are welcoming a new member to your family, it is reasonable to expect accommodations from your employer. After all, in many cases, these are once-in-a-lifetime occurrences. You should not have to worry about the stress of keeping up with your job duties when you are otherwise occupied with a major life event.
Fortunately, the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that enables employees to take temporary leaves of absences under certain qualifying conditions. California offers a similar, state-specific program called the California Family Rights Act, but FMLA applies throughout the United States.
There can be some confusion over who qualifies for FMLA and what benefits it guarantees. Below, we cover FMLA’s general eligibility requirements, situations where you can take a leave of absence, and the benefits employers are legally required to honor.
General Requirements to Qualify Under FMLA
While FMLA is a statute that applies to all 50 states, not everyone United States worker automatically qualifies. Some small businesses with only a few employees are exempted from FMLA requirements, and you will need to have worked a certain amount of time before you become eligible for its benefits.
To generally qualify for FMLA, you must meet the following eligibility requirements:
- Your employer must have more than 50 employees in a 75-mile radius
- You must have worked at the job for a minimum of 1 calendar year
- You must have accumulated a minimum of 1,250 work hours
In other words, you will in most circumstances be able to exercise FMLA benefits if you have just been hired at a company. The more-than-50-employees requirement also precludes many smaller businesses from having to participate.
If you do meet all of the above requirements, you are eligible for FMLA benefits. This means that a qualifying event requires your employer to give you up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period. During t his time, your work-related benefits, such as health insurance, must be maintained. At the conclusion of the leave of absence, your employer must allow you to return to your position or a similar position, without penalty.
What is a FMLA-Qualifying Event?
These benefits do not trigger unless you experience a FMLA-qualifying event. This is often the source of dispute with employers, who are reluctant to offer their employees their leaves of absences and will sometimes claim their event is not in fact covered by FMLA. Below, we will review the most common qualifying events and what factors could be involved in determining if it is covered by FMLA.
Giving Birth to a Child
The term “family leave” is perhaps most commonly associated with pregnancy and having a newborn child, so it is no surprise that FMLA benefits trigger in events surrounding pregnancy, up to and including the birth. Note that FMLA benefits cover both childbirth, newborn rearing, and any complications that develop during the final stages of a pregnancy.
If you so choose, you are also able to exercise maternity leave at any point during your pregnancy or up to one year after the birth of the child. For non-emergency situations, you are required to give your employer 30 days’ notice of your intent to exercise your leave of absence.
It is also important to note that FMLA covers both mothers and fathers in pregnancy-related situations. If you are about to be a father and your spouse experiences serious pregnancy complications, for example, you are permitted to take a leave of absence under FMLA. Similarly, even if there are no complications, both the mother and father are able to take a protected leave of absence to care for their newborn child.
Adopting or Fostering a Child
FMLA benefits also extend to parents navigating adoptions and foster care situations. Protected leaves of absences can be taken in situations where either a child is newly adopted or fostered or if a parent’s absence from work is required for the adoption or fostering to proceed.
For example, some adoptions require the prospective parents to travel abroad to the location of the child. Alternatively, a child parents are interested in fostering might be located in another city, and an in-person visit may be required to complete the process. FMLA guarantees parents the right to take protected leaves of absences in these situations.
Like in pregnancies, FMLA protects both fathers and mothers. In non-emergency situations, you will need to inform your employer of your plans at least 30 days in advance.
Managing an Immediate Family Member’s Military Deployment
FMLA also extends to members of the military and their families. Immediate family members of an active U.S. servicemember are potentially eligible to take protected leaves of absences when the servicemember is called to active duty in which they will be deployed to a foreign country or into international waters.
However, the leave of absence cannot simply be taken because the servicemember is being deployed: The absence must be due to some extenuating circumstance resulting from the deployment or imminent deployment. Qualifying examples include traveling to make arrangements for the servicemember’s minor children and attending military ceremonies. You can also take a leave of absence should the servicemember need assistance in managing financial or legal elements of their estate once they are deployed.
Military caregivers get special considerations in situations where the servicemember is injured in the line of duty, including up to 26 weeks of protected unpaid leave. This applies to servicemembers who are currently serving but are undergoing some form of medical treatment, recuperation, or therapy as a result of a serious injury or condition acquired in the course of their service. FMLA also protects caregivers to veterans who were honorably discharged and are being treated for some illness or injury within 5 years of their leaving the military.
In other words, if you care for a servicemember who has been seriously injured in the line of duty or a veteran who is experiencing an injury as a result of their service, you are entitled to up to 26 weeks in a protected leave of absence. In these situations, a “serious injury or illness” is generally defined as a condition that would prevent the individual from adequately performing their military responsibilities.
Becoming Incapacitated or Seriously Ill
If you become seriously injured or ill to the point of incapacitation, you likely qualify for FMLA benefits. This can be one of the most contested qualifying events, as many employers will dispute whether a medical condition is sufficient to be eligible under FMLA.
A medical condition typically qualifies under FMLA rules if it requires inpatient care and/or continuing treatment. Inpatient care refers to any overnight stays in a medical facility; if you spend the night at a hospital, for example, you automatically qualify for FMLA benefits.
Continuing treatment is both broader and trickier to define. There are specific rules and timelines that must be met to establish FMLA-eligible conditions and treatments.
Some temporary but serious ailments can be covered, including broken bones, recovery from a major surgery, or serious, recoverable illnesses like pneumonia. The treatment must render the patient unable to work for more than 3 consecutive days. In addition, the patient must either need a minimum of 2 visits to a medical facility or a single visit to a medical facility in which they procure some form of continuing treatment, like prescription medication or physical therapy.
Other chronic conditions that generate incidental or episodic periods of incapacity can also be covered. These conditions include severe diabetes, asthma, and epilepsy.
Severe ailments that require multiple treatments to combat are typically covered under “continuing treatment.” This category covers most kinds of cancer.
Permanent or long-term conditions are generally covered, including almost any type of terminal illness. Other conditions with long-term or permanent effects, like severe strokes, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s disease also qualify. In these cases, it is important to remember that FMLA only entitles an employee to a maximum of 12 weeks of protected leave in a 12-month period. Should the employee still be unable to return to work at the end of that period, they may face greater complications, especially if they are no longer able to manage job responsibilities.
Managing an Immediate Family Member’s Illness or Injury
Like in military situations, an immediate family member is defined as a spouse, child, or parent. Should one of your immediate family members experience any of the qualifying ailments described above, you are entitled to take a leave of absence as their caregiver.
In these situations, you will likely need to provide documentation supporting the injury or illness. You also may need to prove to your employer that you are using the time to care for your loved one.
What If I Experience Multiple FMLA-Qualifying Events in a Single Year?
While it is unpleasant to consider, it is not impossible that you could experience multiple serious incidents in a single year, especially if you or a loved one suffer from a chronic condition. Some injuries, like those in automobile accidents, can arise with no warning. You may be wondering if you are entitled to additional protected leaves of absence should the situation call for it.
Unfortunately, you are capped at 12 weeks of protected leave under FMLA in a 12-month period in most situations. (Exceptions can be made for cases involving military caregivers, in which you can take up to 26 weeks of leave.) While your employer could potentially show leniency and sympathy to any plight you may be experiencing and grant you additional leave, they are under no legal obligation to do so under FMLA.
With that said, you are permitted to take as many individual periods of protected leave that you are eligible for, so long as they do not exceed 12 weeks in total. For example, say you experience an injury and take 2 weeks of leave to recover. A few months later, your spouse then gives birth, so you take 8 weeks to help care for the newborn child. Sadly, you learn a month later that your father has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Under FMLA, you are entitled to 2 additional weeks to care for him, but no more.
It is worth mentioning that some employers do offer their own policies for paid and unpaid leave. Some may be targeted for specific situations, like family leave, while others may be more general. Employers can offer their own policies so long as they do not conflict with FMLA rules.
We Can Assist You with FMLA Violations
Some employers will frustratingly and incorrectly claim you are not entitled to any protected leave of absence. So long as the employer and employee both meet eligibility requirements described above, you are entitled to FMLA benefits, no matter what your boss says. If you believe your company has unlawfully denied protected leave of absence or has retaliated against you for exercising those rights, we want to help. Our attorneys at K2 Employment Law Group can give you the compassionate legal counsel you deserve.
Call (800) 590-7674 or contact us online to schedule a free consultation.