Your members probably know the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as the law that lets them take time off after they've had a baby. But are they aware of the other reasons the law might apply?
It's important that trustees have up-to-date knowledge on the FMLA and are able to pass on that knowledge to the union's membership. If a member becomes seriously ill or their military spouse is injured overseas, they could qualify for FMLA eligibility without ever knowing it. A lack of understanding about the FMLA could also open up the potential for lawsuits. In one recent court case, a company had to pay more than $300,000 in damages and back pay after violating the law. Educating members about the ins and outs of the FMLA before they need time away from work will make the leave process smoother for everyone involved.
Understanding FMLA Eligibility
The FMLA is a federal law passed in 1993 to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities. The law applies to all private businesses that employ 50 or more workers for at least 20 weeks out of the year, as well as public agencies and both public and private schools. It guarantees certain employees up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave every year with the assurance that they won't lose their job. Importantly, while employees are away, employers have to keep up their health benefits.
Members who want to take FMLA leave need to have been with a company for at least 12 months and completed 1,250 hours of work. That comes out to about 24 hours a week for 52 weeks, which means both full- and part-time workers can be covered.
Members could be eligible if:
- They become seriously ill
- Their spouse, child or parent becomes seriously ill
- They need to care for a covered service member (a spouse, child, parent or next of kin)
- They have a baby or adopt or foster a child
The FMLA also includes special considerations for spouses who work together. In some cases, spouses are limited to a combined total of 12 weeks leave in a 12-month period. Those cases include:
- Having a child
- Adopting or fostering a child
- Caring for a seriously ill parent
If members are eligible, there are a few conditions of FMLA leave they should keep in mind, including that:
- Members must give at least 30 days' notice before taking FMLA leave, barring emergencies
- Members don't have to take the 12 weeks of leave consecutively
- When taking FMLA time off to care for a newborn or adopted child, members must take their leave within one year of the child's birth or arrival, and in one consecutive block of time
Educating Members on the FMLA
The new year is a great time to educate members on FMLA eligibility. Instead of simply offering members the entirety of the law to read, trustees should consider what portions of the FMLA will be the most relevant to members and what methods of communication will be most effective. Passing FMLA information along to members could be as simple as putting an FMLA blurb in the union's monthly newsletter or as hands-on as speaking directly to members at the first member meeting of the year.
In addition to the basics of eligibility, aim to educate members on common pitfalls associated with FMLA leave. For instance, workers' jobs are protected while they're away, but the law doesn't require they return to the same job. To set the right expectations, make sure members know that, when they return, they may not have the exact same role. Additionally, many employers allow employees to save their vacation days and use extra sick days so they can get paid for some of their FMLA time off. If this is the case for your members, make sure they know that ahead of time so they can plan accordingly.
Even if no members are currently expecting a baby, they might be injured or find themselves suddenly responsible for managing a relative's care. FMLA education is all about preparation — if a member does end up in a qualifying situation, they'll be in a good position to go through the right channels to find support as they care for a loved one or recover themselves.
With 15 years' experience writing for publications including The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, The Christian Science Monitor and Newsday—Deborah Blumberg specializes in business and finance and health and wellness. She writes about topics including corporate communications, financial markets, real estate, renewable energy, cancer, health education, nutrition, supplements, the microbiome and functional medicine. She was a Knight Center fellow and a Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism fellow. Her time working in marketing and communications at JPMorgan Chase taught her how to best tell a company's story. She's adept at turning complex ideas into compelling copy. She's also an officer of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a Women in the Visual and Literary Arts board member, and she is fluent in Spanish.