Skip to main content

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): The Basics

The Brief

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed by Congress with bipartisan support and signed into law in January 1993. Twenty-nine years later, FMLA remains a key tool in helping millions of American workers balance family and work.

Last updated February 1, 2022.

What Is the FMLA?

The FMLA is a federal labor law which allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave, or to substitute appropriate paid leave, if the employee has earned or accrued other forms of leave benefits for parental, family caregiver, and medical reasons.1 2

Who Can Take FMLA Leave?

Currently, nearly 56 percent of all U.S. workers are eligible for coverage under the FMLA.3

This policy covers employees who:

  • Have worked for a company for at least one year,
  • Worked at least 1,250 hours during that year (or approximately 156 days),
  • Live within 75 miles of the workplace, and
  • Work for an employer who employs 50 or more employees for at least 20 weeks
    during the current or previous year.

Employees of public agencies, including local, state, and federal agencies, and public and private elementary and secondary schools, regardless of the number of employees employed, are also eligible. 4

Share
Read Next

What Type of Leave Is Covered by the FMLA?

Under the FMLA, covered employers must provide eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for any of the following reasons:

  • The birth of a child and to care for a newborn child within one year of birth;
  • The placement of a child for adoption or foster care with the employee, and to
    care for the newly placed child within one year of placement;
  • To care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health
    condition;
  • A serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the
    essential functions of his or her job; or
  • Any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son,
    daughter, or parent is a covered military member on “covered active duty,” or
    26 workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered
    servicemember with a serious injury or illness if the eligible employee is the
    service member’s spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin (military
    caregiver leave).5

In certain cases, FMLA leave may be taken on an intermittent basis rather than all at once, or the employee may work a part-time schedule.6

What is Job Protection?

A critical element of the FMLA is that it allows an eligible employee to take leave without the threat of demotion or firing. Under the law, the employee has the right to return to the same or similar position with equivalent pay, benefits, and responsibilities. Additionally, taking leave cannot cause the employee to lose any benefit that accrued prior to the start of the leave.7,8

How is the FMLA Used?

In 2018,9 15 percent of all eligible workers took unpaid, job-protected leave under the FMLA. Most leave was taken for an employee’s own illness (51 percent) and nearly half (40 percent) of all leaves taken were shorter than 10 days. Among all workers, 7 percent reported having an unmet need for leave and two-thirds (66 percent) of these workers cited their inability to afford unpaid time off as the reason why they didn’t take leave. 10

Employee Reasons for Taking Leave in 2018

Source: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasp/evaluation/fmla2018.
Percentage of Workers
Personal illness 51 %
Pregnancy, adoption, foster 25 %
FMLA-covered family caregiving 19 %
Non-qualifying caregiving 5 %

Employee Reasons for Returning to Work After Leave in 2018

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, “2018 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Surveys,” 2020. Available at: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasp/evaluation/fmla2018
Percentage of Workers
Desire to get back to work 69 %
No longer needed to be on leave 69 %
Doctor approved return 63 %
Used all leave time available 30 %
Felt pressured by boss/colleagues 19 %
Afraid to lose seniority/promotion 18 %

How Does the FMLA Differ from Paid Family Leave?

The FMLA provides unpaid leave with job protection to eligible employees. Paid family leave programs provide compensation while on qualifying leave but do not always provide job protection. A number of state paid leave programs have not expanded job protection beyond what the FMLA provides. More information on state programs and on the role of job protection is provided in the BPC fact sheets: State Paid Family Leave Laws Across the U.S. and State FMLA and Job-Protection Leave Laws Across the U.S.

End Notes


1 Electronic code of Federal Regulations, “Part 825—The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993,” 2021. Available at: https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=abbd92cdff37c5d32de741cc5ccc1e81&rgn=div5&view=text&node=29:3.1.1.3.54&idno=29#se29.3.825_1100.
2 U.S. Department of Labor, “Factsheet #28A: Employee Protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act,” 2012. Available at: https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs28a.pdf.
3 U.S. Department of Labor, “FMLA Survey Fact Sheet.” Available at: https://www.dol.gov/whd/fmla/survey/FMLA_Survey_factsheet.pdf.
4 U.S. Department of Labor, “FMLA Frequently Asked Questions.” Available at: https://www.dol.gov/whd/fmla/fmla-faqs.htm.
5 U.S. Department of Labor, “Family and Medical Leave Act.” Available at: https://www.dol.gov/whd/fmla/.
6 Electronic code of Federal Regulations, “Part 825—The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993,” 2019. Available at: https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=abbd92cdff37c5d32de741cc5ccc1e81&rgn=div5&view=text&node=29:3.1.1.3.54&idno=29#se29.3.825_1100.
7 U.S. Department of Labor, “Factsheet #77B: Protection for Individuals under the FMLA,” 2011. Available at: https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs77b.htm.
8 U.S. Department of Labor, “Factsheet #28A: Employee Protections under the Family and Medical Leave Act,” 2012. Available at: https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs28a.pdf.
9 Abt Associates, Assessing FMLA: Results from 2018 Surveys, September 2020. Available at: https://www.abtassociates.com/insights/publications/report/assessing-fmla-results-from-2018-surveys.
10 U.S. Department of Labor, “2018 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Surveys,” 2020. Available at: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/oasp/evaluation/fmla2018
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.

Support Research Like This

With your support, BPC can continue to fund important research like this by combining the best ideas from both parties to promote health, security, and opportunity for all Americans.

Donate Now
Tags
Share