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Employment Law: The Family Medical Leave Act

On February 5, 1993, President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.1 The Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers of 50 or more employees to provide eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for their own serious illness, the birth or adoption of a child, or the care of a seriously ill child, spouse, or parent.

The law takes effect six (6) months from its February 5, 1993 signing for employers without collective bargaining agreements. For employers with union contracts, the Act becomes effective either on the date the contract expires or one (1) year after the date of enactment, whichever is earlier. The enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was actually the culmination of efforts over a number of years to enact a family leave bill.

The key definition contained in the law is the term "eligible employee." The definition states that eligible employees are those who have been employed for at least twelve (12) months by a given employer, and who have provided at least 1,250 hours of service during the twelve (12) months before leave is requested.2 Excluded from the definition of "eligible employee" are those who work for a employer who employs fewer than fifty (50) people within a seventy-five (75) mile radius of the employees' work site. Thus, many small employers are excluded from the Act's coverage.

An eligible employee is entitled to 12 unpaid work weeks of leave during any twelve (12) month period for three (3) reasons:

1. The birth or placement for adoption or foster care of a child;
2. The serious health condition of a spouse, child or parent; or
3. The employee's own serious health condition.3

A serious health condition is defined under the Act as an illness, injury, impairment or physical or mental condition that requires inpatient care or continuous treatment by a health care provider.4 Leave may be taken for birth or placement of a child only within twelve (12) months of that birth or placement.5

Employers may require workers to take any paid sick leave or annual leave as part of the twelve (12) week leave provided by the law.6

Employees taking leave are entitled to receive health benefits while they are on unpaid leave under the same terms and conditions as when they were on the job.7 In addition, employers must guarantee employees the right to return to their previous or an equivalent position with no loss of benefits at the end of the leave.8 There are certain exceptions for highly paid employees.9

The Act also addresses employee requests for intermittent or reduced leave for family reasons. A reduced leave schedule means any leave schedule that reduces the employee's usual hours in a workday or workweek. Leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted baby on a reduced or intermittent basis is allowed only if the employer and employee agree to the arrangement. Employees may take health-related intermittent leave as a matter of right.

The Family and Medical Leave Act has enforcement provisions patterned after the Fair Labor Standards Act.10 The law allows civil suits by employees and also allows the Secretary of Labor to sue for damages on behalf of employees whose employers have violated the Act.11 Employers who violate the law are liable to any eligible employee affected for monetary damages as well as for appropriate equitable relief, such as re-employment or promotion.12 An employee may sue for equitable relief or damages, including liquidated damages, in any federal or state court, unless the Labor Secretary files an action on that employee's behalf.13 Employees may recover attorneys' fees and costs.14 Actions must be brought within two years of the last event constituting the alleged violation, or within three years if the violation is willful.15

The Act requires employers to maintain compliance records and post an approved summary of the law. The Department of Labor issues regulations implementing the Act which employers should continue to monitor.

Covered employers should review their policies and practices to ensure they are consistent and comply with the requirements of the new law. Managers and supervisors should be given training on applying the laws and a record keeping system should be established. By taking these measures, employers should minimize the potential problems associated with the new act.

1 See 29 U.S.C. 2601, et. seq., 2002. backBack
2 "Family Medical Leave Act," 29 U.S.C. 2611(2), 2002. backBack
3 "Family Medical Leave Act"29 U.S.C. 2612(a), 2002. backBack
4 "Family Medical Leave Act," 29 U.S.C. 2612(11), 2002. backBack
5 "Family Medical Leave Act," 29 U.S.C. 2612(a)(2), 2002. backBack
6 "Family Medical Leave Act," 29 U.S.C. 2612(d)(2), 2002. backBack
7 See "Family Medical Leave Act," 29 U.S.C. 2614(c), 2002. backBack
8 See "Family Medical Leave Act," 29 U.S.C. 2614(a), 2002. backBack
9 See "Family Medical Leave Act," 29 U.S.C. 2614(b), 2002. backBack
10 See 29 U.S.C. 2617, 2002. backBack
11 See 29 U.S.C. 2617(a) and (b), 2002. backBack
12 29 U.S.C. 2617(a)(1), 2002. backBack
13 29 U.S.C. 2617(a)(4), 2002. backBack
14 29 U.S.C. 2617(a)(3), 2002. backBack
15 29 U.S.C. 2617(c), 2002. backBack

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