The whole purpose of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is to provide employees a safety net. In the event they or an immediate family member becomes seriously ill, the law affords an eligible worker up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off.

But what illnesses qualify an employee to take advantage of FMLA leave? Here is an overview.

A ‘serious’ health condition

The FMLA does not allow a worker to take protected time off for any old illness. Instead, as the Department of Labor explains, the eligible employee must be:

  • Caring for a spouse, child or parent who has a serious health condition
  • Unable to work themselves due to a serious health condition

So what makes an ailment “serious,” exactly?

The rules and regulations don’t name specific ailments, as different people may require varying levels of care for the same illness. However, the agency does provide some guidelines.

A “serious health condition” is a physical or mental injury, illness, or impairment that requires inpatient care (so a stay at a hospital, hospice or other care facility) or continuing treatment by a medical provider. This treatment can be the result of a short-term, long-term, chronic or permanent ailment.

Your job is protected

If an employee is eligible for FMLA leave, they can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time away from work in order to either care for their family member, or recover themselves. Crucially, an employer cannot fire, demote or punish you for taking this protected time off.

When you return from FMLA leave, your employer has to place you either back into your original job, or an “equivalent” position with generally the same pay and work terms. It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for taking advantage of this legally protected benefit.

Life is unpredictable. The FMLA is in place to provide a modicum of stability in uncertain times. Employees should not be punished for enduring these difficult circumstances.