Facing a serious illness — whether your own or a family members’ — can be a frightening time. It only adds to the stress if you are concerned about losing your job due to repeated absences. Understanding that emergencies occur, the government has put in place a system that allows employees to address medical issues without fear of losing their job or insurance coverage.

FMLA Overview

The Family Medical Leave Act, passed in 1993, allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12 month period after the birth or adoption of a child, to care for an ill family member or if you have a serious illness. FMLA also allows you to take leave if certain qualifying circumstances occur in relation to your spouse or child’s service in the military. If you are caring for a spouse, parent, child or next of kin who was injured in military combat, FLMA allows you to take up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave. FMLA leave begins on the first day that you are out of work for an FMLA-related reason. You cannot lose your job for taking FMLA leave, and your employer must continue to contribute to your health insurance while you are not working.

Notifying Employer

In general, employees need to notify their employer in writing as soon as they know they will need to take FMLA leave; 30 days is the standard notification period. You may need to provide documentation of your need for FMLA leave. In some cases, providing 30 days notice is impossible or impractical. If the need for FMLA arises because of an emergency, you need to provide the notification and documentation as soon as possible. The FMLA leave start date is always first day of your absence from work, regardless of when you notify your employer.

FMLA Substitutions

Some employers allow employees to substitute paid time off for all or part of their FMLA leave. For example, a pregnant employee may have six weeks of paid time off saved. When she gives birth, she can use those six weeks of time off and get paid for them, and the remaining six weeks of her leave are unpaid. In this case, the FMLA leave still begins on the first day of the absence from work for the FMLA-covered reason.

FMLA Leave Schedule

FMLA leave does not always have to be taken in 12 or 26 consecutive weeks. In some cases, such as when an employee is receiving treatment for an illness, the leave can be broken up into blocks of time or taken as a reduced schedule over time. Your leave schedule should be included with your notification to your employer. If you have given birth or adopted a baby, your employer can decide whether you will be allowed to break up your leave.

Qualifying for FMLA

To qualify for FMLA leave, you must meet certain conditions. Your employer must be covered by FMLA, which generally means they have more than 50 employees; you must have worked for the company for at least 12 months and worked at least 1,250 within those 12 months. In addition, the employer must be located within the U.S. or one of its territories. If your employer has locations outside of the U.S., at least 50 employees must be U.S. based.