When To Consider Using FMLA Leave (Besides After You’ve Had A Baby)

caregivers and a group of people

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is often discussed in the context of maternity leave because a woman who physically gives birth needs between 6-8 weeks of recovery time before she can return to work, and FMLA provides job protection for an extended period of time off for qualifying events such as this one. That being said, there are also many other instances where employees can take advantage of FMLA protections, they just aren’t discussed nearly as often. 

If you have a child who is chronically ill, a parent who needs to be taken to the doctor on a regular basis, a partner who needs support or you have a condition of your own, you might have more job protection than you realize.

FMLA 101

What it is

FMLA is a federal law that requires most employers to provide eligible employees with 12 weeks of unpaid leave per (rolling) year for time off for qualifying health/medical purposes. This leave can be taken in one large 12-week chunk or spread out. When an employee takes approved FMLA leave, under law their job is protected and their health benefits remain in effect.

An employee can request FMLA leave to care for a partner, son, daughter, parent or themself for a qualifying medical issue. 

What are employer qualifications

There are a lot of caveats to FMLA, one of which is whether or not an employer is required to provide it. Here is an overview of the qualifiers:

👉 An employer with a private business employing 50+ workers in 20+ workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year. (Note: This means, if you work for a small business, they may not be required to offer you this job and benefits protection.)

👉 All public agencies at the local, state and federal levels, regardless of the number of employees

👉 All public and private elementary and secondary schools, regardless of the number of employees

Who qualifies for it

Working for a covered employer does not automatically mean you are entitled to FMLA protections unfortunately. There are qualifiers for employees as well:

👉 Must have worked for the employer for at least 12 months

👉 Must have worked at least 1,250 hours for the employer over the 12 month period immediately preceding the leave (this averages out to around at least 25 hours a week)

👉 Works at a location where the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles (Note: If you are a remote employee, this last point isn’t black and white but HR can clarify it for you.)

When to use FMLA

You can take FMLA leave to take care of your partner, son, daughter, parent or yourself if you’re unable to work for a qualifying reason. The law breaks this into three parts: Serious Health Conditions, Military Family Leave and Expanding Your Family. 

What is considered a serious health condition

There is a lot of room for interpretation for what falls under the “serious health condition” umbrella. According to the department of labor, “a serious health condition is defined as an illness, injury, impairment or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider.” 

Again, this is really vague language, but that vague language means a lot more circumstances qualify for FMLA protection than you may think.

Here are some examples that might qualify for FMLA protection:


👉 Provider appointments or days off to care for your child with an ongoing chronic condition that requires at least two health care provider appointments a year such as asthma, severe food allergies, autism, developmental disabilities, depression, congenital heart disease, diabetes, and ADHD, among many others

👉 Any circumstance where you or a family member has at least one inpatient overnight stay at the hospital or other medical care facility, such as an accident, surgery or illness

👉 Appointments and other time off for yourself if you have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, postpartum mood disorder or anything else that requires ongoing treatment

👉 Severe pregnancy symptoms resulting in incapacitation such as strict bedrest, extreme morning sickness and gestational diabetes

👉 Treatment necessary following an assault or domestic violence such as hospital stays, medical procedures and therapy for PTSD or other mental health disorders

👉 Caring for your partner after she has given birth and is recovering physically or suffering from a postpartum mood disorder

What qualifies as expanding your family 

Family expansion isn’t exactly maternity leave, because the first 6 to 8 weeks of maternity leave are covered by FMLA as a serious health condition while the last 4 to 6 weeks are considered family expansion. Essentially, an employee (regardless of their gender identity) who wants to spend time bonding with a new child they brought into their home, whether biologically or otherwise, can use FMLA leave to do so as long as it’s taken within one year of the child coming into the home. Typically, this leave needs to be taken in one block, but employers can approve intermittent leave as needed (such as a reduced part-time schedule). 

Situations that qualify as family expansion include:

👉 The birth of a biological child

👉 Placement of a child through adoption

👉 Placement of a child through foster care

👉 Placement of a child to which you serve as In Loco Parentis (a person with no biological or legal relationship to a child but who provides day-to-day care or financial support to them)

How do military families fit in

There are two categories for military leave through FMLA: Military Caregiver Leave and Qualifying Exigencies Leave. The first allows a family member of an injured or sick service member or veteran up to 26 weeks of protected leave to care for them. This is pretty straightforward and aligned with the “serious medical condition” category.

Leave that falls under the qualifying exigencies category is a little different and maxes out at 12 weeks of leave per year. In this situation, employees with a partner, son, daughter, or parent deployed outside of the US can use FMLA leave for time off in circumstances that are connected to the deployment in some way but have nothing to do with medical conditions. Here are some examples:

👉 Any personal/family matters that need urgent attention as a result of short notice deployment

👉 Taking up to 15 days off to spend time with the service member while they are home for short-term, temporary Rest and Relaxation Leave

👉 Planning and/or attending a farewell or “welcome home” arrangement for the service member

👉 Attending official military events including ceremonies and support groups

👉 Managing childcare arrangements such as a school transfer or last-minute care as a result of deployment

👉 Caring for a service member’s parent

👉 Making and/or managing financial or legal arrangements on behalf of the service member

👉 Attending counseling or taking a family member for counseling, which is needed as a result of deployment and isn’t provided by a traditional mental health care provider

Important notes 

There are a lot of rules and caveats to FMLA leave, so here are a few key things to remember as you consider whether or not to take advantage of the protection: 

  1. You have to tell your employer as soon as you know you need or want to use FMLA leave (30 days in advance if possible)
  2. You will likely need to provide documentation to your employer from your physicians, but you do not have to reveal a formal diagnosis if you don’t feel comfortable doing so
  3. Your employer has to tell you if you’re eligible/approved for FMLA leave within 5 business days of your request, if they deny it they have to give you at least one reason why your circumstance does not qualify
  4. Your employer can request you get a second opinion for a health condition, but they have to cover the costs of any appointments necessary to get it. They can also request a third opinion if the first and second opinions differ, but they have to cover those costs, too
  5. When you return from leave, you may not return to the exact job you left, but you’re guaranteed an equivalent role and your salary will not change
  6. You will likely be required to stay in touch with your employer throughout your leave and give them status updates as needed

Remember, FMLA is a right

Just because you have been dealing with your child’s ADHD or meeting with your own therapist for years doesn’t mean you are any less entitled to FMLA protection than someone who is going through a situation that you perceive as “more serious” than your own. This law is in place to protect employees and to help them with work-life integration. Don’t be afraid to utilize this protection, and remember that your HR representative is there to help you sort through all of the law’s language so you can have a firm understanding of your rights and responsibilities. 

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