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What is FMLA? 4 FAQs Every Small Business Owner Should Know

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FMLA: it’s a four letter fire extinguisher. You hope you’ll never have to use it, but it’s a must-have in case of emergencies. FMLA is a legal act that protects your employees from losing their job when their personal life has a hiccup or goes up in smoke. That said, FMLA can have a real impact on your small business. So it’s crucial for employers to understand FMLA to protect themselves and their employees just in case things go off the rails. 

Unfortunately, most business owners don’t understand how complex FMLA is. Employers – you should be aware of FMLA, whether it applies to your small biz and how to comply with it. To help you understand how FMLA works, here are the 4 top questions we hear about FMLA from small business owners and our top tips on how to stay compliant.

What is FMLA?

FMLA is short for the Family and Medical Leave Act. It’s a federal law that provides employees with unpaid, job-protected leave and benefits continuation in certain circumstances. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to balance their work and family life by taking reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. When unique experiences arise in an employee’s personal life, they are eligible for a leave of absence under this Act. The idea behind the law is this: under FMLA, an employee can prioritize their health and family needs with guaranteed job protection and continuation of benefits in their absence.

FMLA is a federal law that allows employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period under specific circumstances. (Plus, they may be eligible for more leave time if caring for an injured or ill service member.)

But it’s not like all of your employees can just take a 12 week leave of absence. To qualify for leave, employees must meet certain criteria and be leaving for a covered reason – like leaving to take care of a terminally ill spouse or adopt a child.

4 Top FMLA FAQs For Small Business Owners

The Family Medical Leave Act gives employees peace of mind while dealing with big changes in their personal life. But how does it work and do you have to offer FMLA to your employees? See our top questions about FMLA for small businesses, answered. 

1. Does the Family Medical Leave Act Apply to Small Businesses?

FMLA is enforced when businesses meet certain criteria. If your business has more than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius, the FMLA must be offered – making you a covered employer. (This includes various business types including public, private, and nonprofit.)

A covered employer under the FMLA is any company that employs 50 or more employees within a 75 mile radius for 20 or more workweeks in the current or previous calendar year.

Covered employers have to provide FMLA leave. Keep in mind that your business does not need to have 50 employees at the time an employee requests FMLA leave. Instead, this number means that you must have had 50 employees in 20 or more workweeks in the current or previous calendar year! Plus, part-time employees must be counted for FMLA purposes.

If your company has under 50 employees

Companies that employ over 50 people are required to comply with the FMLA, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones allowed to provide this benefit. Small businesses under 50 employees have the option to offer the FMLA, but they aren’t required to by law. Integrated or joint employers – you may need to offer FMLA. Having multiple small businesses with less than 50 employees at each doesn’t exclude you from FMLA criteria. 

Integrated employers typically own multiple branches or locations of their business.

Joint employers typically use an employee sharing or leasing service, otherwise known as contract staffing.

Make sure you are counting the employees at each branch if they exist within 75 miles of each other, and if the total adds up to over 50; you must fulfill the FMLA requirements.

2. When do employees become eligible for FMLA benefits?

Here’s the kicker. To take FMLA leave, an employee must:

  1. work for a covered employer
  2.  be an eligible employee
  3. Use the leave for a “covered reason

fmla infographic

First and foremost, employees have to be working under a covered employer to consider taking leave under FMLA. These employees should have proven commitment to the company.

Second, to be eligible for FMLA leave, employees must have been employed for at least 12 months and a minimum of 1,250 hours at the same company. After these requirements are met, they will then need a valid reason for taking leave.

Third, the employee must have a qualifying reason they are able to take leave. The Family Medical Leave Act covers eligible reasons such as:

  • Birth and care of a newborn child
  • Adopting or foster care placement of a child
  • Caring for a spouse, child, or parent experiencing a serious health condition
  • A personal health diagnosis that interferes with job performance
  • Any qualifying exigency due to active military family member on duty

When dealing with these life events, the FMLA encourages taking a break from work to prioritize family and health needs as they are time sensitive and ideally temporary.

3. How Does FMLA Work?

It’s important to note. As an employer, you cannot require that your employee use all of their 12 weeks continuously! Meaning that employees don’t have to take their time off in one consistent period. Under FMLA, an employee is entitled to 12 workweeks of leave during any 12-month period – but that leave time can be broken up. 

The FMLA provides that leave may be taken intermittently or on a reduced leave schedule under certain circumstances.

Intermittent leave is FMLA leave taken in separate blocks of time due to a single qualifying reason. For example, an employee may take intermittent leave for all doctor appointments associated with treatment of serious health condition (such as chemotherapy for cancer.)

A reduced leave schedule is a leave schedule that reduces an employee’s usual number of working hours per workweek or hours per workday. An example of a reduced leave schedule is an employee who is recovering from a serious health condition and is not strong enough to work a full-time schedule.


4. Can An Employer Deny an FMLA request?

Employers can only deny a request for valid reasons and the same goes for employees: requesting leave can only be approved for special circumstances. Without proper notice, employers can deny the FMLA request. It is rare for employers to deny these requests, but there are some circumstances that could include:

  • Invalid reason for leave request
  • Failure to authorize contacting health care provider
  • Lack of proper notice
  • Inability for an employer to fill the position if they have less than 50 employees
  • Employer doesn’t need FMLA criteria

If your employee falls ill long-term, it’s essential to have a plan in place. While the FMLA leave can assist with any burdens in the meantime, businesses should be prepared for “what if” circumstances.

HR Can Help

business man holding a rubix cube

Handling FMLA compliance can be tricky. (It’s the Rubix cube of taking time off!) If you’re unsure how to handle an FMLA request, reach out to an HR professional. They can guide you through eligibility requirements for you and your employees, while avoiding any legal issues.

Let HR guide you through a FMLA request. Facilitating FMLA correctly will help you build trust with your employees. Once your employees know you care about their well-being, they’re more likely be engaged and go above and beyond for your company goals. This is one compliance Rubix cube you’ll want to solve.