The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, is a federal law that requires certain companies to provide their employees with unpaid time off to deal with a medical or family emergency such as a hospitalization, pregnancy or serious injury. This act serves to protect employees' jobs while away and to continue important benefits such as health insurance. Whether your small business must adhere to the FMLA depends on how many employees you have on your payroll, and your employees must also meet specific work service requirements for eligibility.

What Is the FMLA?

Passed in 1993, the FMLA requires that certain sizes of businesses provide qualified employees with an unpaid family or medical leave of absence to care for themself, their children, their parents or their spouse. The standard annual leave period is a maximum of 12 weeks, but this raises to 26 weeks per year for employees who need to care for spouses or children who are in the armed services. Some situations that qualify employees for leave under the FMLA include:

  • Pregnancy and post-partum infant care
  • Foster care placement or adoption
  • Relocation due to military deployment
  • Serious mental and physical health conditions or injuries involving hospitalization or long-term care

During the leave, the employer has to continue to provide regular benefits such as health insurance to the employee. The employer also has to maintain the worker's employment so that she will have a position when she returns from leave. In a case where the company has to hire someone else for the employee's position, then the company must give her an equal position when she comes back to work.

FMLA Guidelines for Small Businesses

The FMLA applies to your small business if you are based in the United States or a possessed territory and if you have 50 or more employees who work for you at least 20 work weeks in the calendar year. The United States Department of Labor guidelines state that you must count any employee who appears on your payroll regardless of work status. This means even employees who are on a leave of absence, work only seasonally or receive no money for their work (such as unpaid interns) count toward the 50-employee threshold.

Your state's laws for emergency leave might go beyond the FMLA provisions to require even smaller business to give leave. They might also require your company to offer additional paid or unpaid leave time or cover additional situations and family members. For example, the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that Washington, D.C. extends family and medical leave to 16 weeks. California, New Jersey and New York are among states that have provisions requiring that employers pay eligible employees a percentage of their wages during leave.

FMLA Eligibility for Employees

Even when your small business falls under the FMLA guidelines, this does not mean all of your employees are automatically eligible for leave. To qualify, your business's employees must have worked for your company for 12 months or longer. This does not mean they need to have worked this time without break, though, unless the break was at least seven years long and did not occur for a reason related to the armed forces or other special condition. In addition to the tenure requirement, your employees need to have worked 1,250 hours or more in the 12 months prior to beginning leave.

The FMLA places an additional condition for small businesses that hire employees who work from an offsite location, such as traveling salespeople and construction workers. If your remote employee requests a medical or family leave of absence, he only qualifies if there are 50 or more other company employees working within 75 miles of him at a specific worksite. For work-at-home employees, the Department of Labor considers the home office to which the employees report as the worksite rather than the employee's actual home.

The FMLA Leave Process

If your small business falls under the FMLA, you have to put up an FMLA poster at your worksite in a visible location as well as keep your employees informed about how to request a family or medical leave. When an employee does request a leave of absence, you have five days to complete the process of verifying the employee's eligibility. Determining eligibility requires calculating the employee's tenure and hours worked for the last 12 months, reviewing any prior FMLA requests and assessing the family or medical issue against FMLA guidelines.

When an employee appears eligible, you may also request additional documents certifying the emergency, such medical documents showing a serious health condition. After verification completes, you will give the employee notice of the leave period and conditions of the leave (such as the use of any vacation pay and continuation of health insurance). While on leave, your employee should give you notice if the length of leave or health or family situation changes.