It's no secret that employees need to take days off or work from home to recover from an illness from time to time. Not only do sick employees pose a threat to the overall health of the workplace, but sick employees tend to be far less productive when they force themselves to push through an ailment rather than taking a day or two to get better.
While “calling out sick” is an excusable part of professional life, what happens when an employee is hindered by a more serious disease or disability that requires them to take weeks or even months off of work? Before the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), employees were not legally protected from losing their jobs when they required an extended leave. With all of the time, stress, and expenses associated with a medical emergency, a bad situation only becomes worse when employers take punitive action.
Under the FMLA, eligible employees are given up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to recover from an illness or manage a medical emergency (including pregnancy and childbirth). Qualified workers who take time off cannot be fired by their employers for failing to perform their job functions during their leave.
What Is Protected Under the FMLA?
- Maternity Leave - FMLA leave is guaranteed to new parents, both mother and father, who prefer to spend time with their new child. Leave must conclude within 12 months after the birth or placement of the child. This also applies to adoptive parents.
- Serious Health Condition - The Family and Medical Leave Act protects employees who are experiencing an illness or medical emergency that qualifies as a serious health condition.
- Assisting Immediate Family - Immediate family members (parents, spouses, and children) of persons who meet any of the above criteria are protected. For example, a spouse who wishes to serve as a temporary caregiver for their ailing husband would be covered. The FMLA also provides 26 weeks of leave for the immediate family of a military service member who has sustained an illness or injury.
Who Is Eligible for FMLA Leave?
To earn FMLA protections, workers must have been employed at their current company for at least 12 months and must have accumulated at least 1,250 work hours (not including sick or vacation days) during the 12 months immediately before beginning the leave. The 12 months of employment may be non-consecutive, but in general, it must have been over the last seven years.
It's important to note that even if an employee meets the above criteria, not all companies have to provide leave time under FMLA provisions. A company in the private sector is only required to comply with the FMLA if it employs at least 50 workers within a 75-mile radius of the site where the covered individual is employed. The only exceptions to this rule include public agencies (e.g., local or federal governments) and elementary/ secondary schools -- they must always comply with the FMLA, irrespective of the size of their workforce.