The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) protects certain workers from job loss when they take leave to care for a new child, care for an ill family member, or recover from their own serious illness. When an employee’s situation meets certain requirements, they can request unpaid leave under the FMLA to address personal matters.
Most workers qualify for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually under the FMLA. Sometimes, workers can obtain up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave if they need time off to support a family member during medical challenges and that person is an active-duty military servicemember. Otherwise, the FMLA only allows for up to 12 weeks of guaranteed, legally protected leave when adding a new family member, undergoing medical treatment or supporting an ailing loved one.
Available leave refreshes annually. Theoretically, there is no limit to the number of times workers can seek leave under the FMLA. However, the law limits the maximum amount of unpaid leave they can take during a single year. Regardless of how many different qualifying situations someone experiences, they will generally only be eligible for, at most, 12 weeks of unpaid leave per 12-month period.
Even if a worker first experiences a medical challenge affecting their health followed by a loved one’s illness, they won’t be eligible for additional leave until 12 months have passed. Therefore, workers often need to balance the desire to rest and recuperate with the possibility of requiring leave again later within the same year.
Those who use all their unpaid leave for a single incident could be vulnerable to job loss if a secondary situation arises before 12 months have passed. Workers who face multiple challenges in a short amount of time will potentially be vulnerable to termination or other punitive actions brought by their employers if they miss a substantial amount of work.
The FMLA only protects workers from retaliation when they are eligible for leave. If a worker cannot return to their job after the 12 weeks of leave ends, then their employer could choose to demote or even terminate the worker who has become unavailable or unreliable due to personal circumstances.
Employers and employees should learn the rules that apply to this crucial workplace protection to help them avoid unfortunate misunderstandings and navigate challenging leave-related situations in a well-informed, graceful manner.