The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows you to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work to take care of your medical condition or to help an ailing family member. Not all employees are covered, and you must properly apply for the time off, or you may not be covered.

Who Is Covered by FMLA

All government employees are covered by FMLA, and most employees of private companies are covered as well, but not every employee is covered. To qualify in the private sector, your employer must have at least 50 employees who have worked for at least 20 months, and at least 50 of them must work within 75 miles of you. You must have worked for the company for at least a year and worked a minimum of 1,250 hours during the past 12 months.

It is worth noting that while you must have worked 1,250 hours during the past 12 months, the employment could otherwise have been non-consecutive. For example, a worker at a private school could still apply even if she did not work during the summer as long as she met the hour requirements. Also, time off for any purpose does not count towards hours worked when it comes to FMLA eligibility.

FMLA Requirements for Care

FMLA rules state that you may take up to 12 weeks off to care for your own or a family member's medical or personal needs. That means you may take time off in the following cases:

  • To care for your serious health condition.
  • To care for your mental health, for example, taking time to cope with depression after the loss of a loved one.
  • To prepare for, or care for a new child in your family.
  • To assist a child, spouse or parent suffering from a serious health condition.

Keep in mind that while you can take time off to recover from depression related to the loss of a loved one who is not in your immediate family, you cannot use FMLA to assist someone outside of your immediate family, such as an aunt or grandparent, in most cases. The law does not define parents as biological or even legal guardians, so if such a relative served as your parent at some point, you could take time off to care for that person.

FMLA Benefits

FMLA allows you up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work with the guarantee that you will have the same or equivalent job that you had before your leave and you will continue to receive your health benefits. The time off is not paid and the 12 weeks of time off can be taken throughout the year and need not be consecutive. Some states offer additional benefits, such as longer periods of time off or paid time off.

How to Apply for FMLA

The first step to using FMLA is to notify your employer that you need to take leave under FMLA. If possible, provide the employer with at least 30-days notice. Failure to provide adequate notice when it would have been possible may result in your leave being denied.

Your employer must notify you if your position at the company qualifies under FMLA. If the employer claims you do not qualify, and you disagree, you may appeal the decision with the Department of Labor (DOL). If the employer says you are qualified, the company may request certification of your condition. When this occurs, you must obtain an FMLA Medical Certification Form from the DOL and return it within 15 days.

If you were asked to submit a certification, your employer can ask you to correct any deficiencies in the paperwork, request you obtain a second opinion and even a third opinion if the first two doctors disagree in their diagnosis. After the certification is submitted to the employer's satisfaction, he has five business days to let you know if your leave meets the legal requirements and is approved. If it was not approved, but you feel you meet the requirements for FMLA, you can appeal the decision to the DOL.