The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that protects employees to when they need to take a leave of absence due to a family health situation. It allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a broad scope of medical conditions and several major life events — and covers many different family members. Most importantly, the Act guarantees that those who take FMLA leave due to a serious illness or to care for a family member do not face the risk of job loss.
The FMLA safeguards the rights of employees to return to their jobs if they must take time off for certain medical reasons. For instance, an employee may be entitled to invoke the protection of the FMLA if they are unable to work while caring for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition or because of their own medical issues.
An employee in Pennsylvania may be protected by the FMLA if they meet the following criteria:
While FMLA leave is unpaid, employees may be permitted (or in some cases, required) to use their accrued paid vacation or sick leave during their period of absence. Additionally, an employer is required to continue health insurance coverage during the time of absence, as if the employee had not taken leave.
The FMLA covers a broad array of situations in which a family member may need to take time from their employment due to a health or medical issue. Generally, the most common health conditions that satisfy the criteria are those that require an overnight stay in a hospital or other medical care facility. Pregnancy, chronic conditions, and other conditions that result in incapacitation for more than three days may also qualify for leave under the FMLA. Employees who are eligible for FMLA leave may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave within a 12-month period.
Servicemembers and their family members may be entitled to protections under the FMLA in connection with certain military deployments. Up to 26 weeks of FMLA leave may be taken within the period of one year to care for a covered military member with a serious injury or illness.
The FMLA also applies to parents who take time from work following the birth or adoption of a child. Biological, adoptive, step, and foster parents have the right to take FMLA leave within the first year of the child’s birth or placement to bond with their child. However, the absence from work must be in one continuous block, unless the employer agrees to another arrangement.
In addition to providing employees with up to 12 weeks of time off for a qualifying medical condition, the FMLA prohibits employers from taking adverse employment action against those who exercise their right to job-protected leave under the Act. Critically, an employer may not discipline, fail to promote, or terminate an employee because they took FMLA leave.
If an employee is able to return to the workplace upon exhaustion of their leave, they must either be returned to the same job — or one that is nearly identical. If an employee cannot be returned to the same job, a nearly identical job must offer the same work schedule and involve substantially similar duties. An employer is also required to offer identical benefits, pay, and the same level of responsibility and authority.
An employer may require an employee to provide medical certification issued by a health care provider regarding the need for FMLA leave. By law, the employer must allow them at least 15 days to obtain the certification. If the employer finds that the certification is not sufficient, they must provide the employee with a written letter specifying the information needed to cure the deficiency. The employee must be given at least seven days to make the certification complete, unless such amount of time is not practicable despite their good faith efforts.
If an employer has doubts regarding the validity of the certification, they are permitted to require a second or third medical opinion. But the employer must incur the expense of obtaining any additional opinions at their request. Notably, an employee is not required to provide the employer with their medical records.
Some employers may unknowingly commit an FMLA violation. Others might do so intentionally due to employment policies that conflict with the law. Regardless of the circumstances, an employee may be entitled to take legal action against an employer who violated their rights under the FMLA. Not only can an employer be held legally liable for interfering with, restraining, or denying an employee’s rights under the FMLA — but they are also prohibited from retaliating against an employee for filing a complaint in court or with the Wage and Hour Division of the United States Department of Labor.
Different types of damages may be available to an employee who prevails in an FMLA lawsuit. For example, injunctive relief might be granted ordering time off or reinstatement to the position. Recoverable monetary damages in an FMLA action can include back pay, front pay, liquidated damages (twice the lost wages), attorney fees, court costs, and other expenses that may have been incurred due to the employer’s wrongful actions.
The Family and Medical Leave Act can be complicated. If you believe your rights under the FMLA may have been violated, it’s important to have an attorney on your side who has extensive experience handling employment law cases. Located in Pittsburgh, Stember Cohn & Davidson-Welling LLC is committed to providing high-quality representation to clients facing FMLA matters throughout Western Pennsylvania. Call (412) 338-1445 or contact us to schedule a no-fee consultation.