What Is FMLA?

The Family and Medical Leave Act—also known as FMLA—is legislation that was enacted in 1993 in the United States and provides 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in the event of the need to care for a family member, such as a new baby, spouse, child, or parent. In this post, we’ll discuss the specifics, including who qualifies for FMLA and how to plan for unpaid leave.

Who qualifies for FMLA?

In order to qualify for FMLA, you must work for a public agency (local, State, or Federal) or for a company that employs at least 50 people and has done so for at least 20 work weeks. You also must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 hours in those 12 months. Finally, the law stipulates that you must work at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles. This last requirement may be tricky in the age of remote work. Even if you work from home, though, you’re likely eligible if you meet the other requirements, as the law considers the office from which your assignments are made to be your place of employment.

What does FMLA include?

The exact parameters of the law include 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for qualifying employees on: the birth of a child, the care of a newborn within a year of their birth, the adoption or foster placement of a child, care for an adopted or new foster child within one year, care of a spouse, child, or parent with a health condition, a health condition in the employee themselves that makes them unable to perform their job, or a need when the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is serving active duty in the military. [1]

The FMLA protects your job or an equivalent job for 12 weeks of leave. The equivalent job must be on the same shift or schedule and not involve an increase in commuting time. This job must have similar responsibilities and status, the same level of authority, and identical pay and benefits.

What if I don’t qualify?

It can be disappointing to find out that you don’t qualify for FMLA for any reason—due to the length of your employment or the size of the company you work for, perhaps. It’s also possible that your employer has other policies in place to support parental leave upon the birth or adoption of a baby. When you’re ready to tell your boss you’re pregnant, be prepared to also have a conversation about what your leave options are. If your company does not have specific leave policies in place, you can work with them to create policies or get creative. Many places of employment will allow you to take saved vacation and sick leave when you or your partner has a baby.

What about the “unpaid” part?

The United States lags behind most other countries in that FMLA offers job protection but no guarantee of pay. In Canada, for instance, you can receive up to $595 per week (55 percent of pay) for 15 weeks after having a baby and then the same amount for another 20 weeks. You can also split parental leave with a co-parent. While this is disappointing, it’s possible that you won’t have to take your full leave unpaid. If your workplace offers leave, they may offer a certain amount paid, either taken from your vacation and sick leave or separate from it.

If you speak to your human resources department and you are going to have to face unpaid leave, consider stretching out your leave after the initial six weeks. Perhaps you could report one or two days per week for a longer period of time, so that you have more time with your baby, but still receive some pay. Maybe you and your partner can split leave, so that one of you is receiving pay at a time. It’s also possible that you’ll be able to work something out with your employer so that you don’t have to take the entire time off without pay.


S. Department of Labor, “Family and Medical Leave Act.”

  1. Government of Canada, “EI maternity and parental benefits.”
Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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