Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): Comply If You Don’t Have To?

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): Comply If You Don’t Have To?

Recently I was talking to a small business owner who was complaining about a client she works with. The client had been slow to respond and more difficult to work with because one of their employees was on medical leave, thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The FMLA requires companies to allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to bond with a newborn, newly adopted or newly placed child; care for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent; or care for their own serious health condition without fear of losing their jobs.

Since it was signed into law in 1993, there have been amendments to allow workers with family in the military to take time away from work to deal with situations arising from an immediate family member’s foreign deployment, and up to 26 weeks of leave to care for a seriously ill or injured family member who is in military service.

Ironically, the client my friend was complaining about was a big company, which is why it was affected by the FMLA. Although many small businesses complain about the FMLA, in reality, not many small businesses are affected, since the law doesn’t apply to companies that have 50 or fewer employees.

But even if the FMLA doesn’t apply to your business, should you follow it – or something like it?

I would argue yes. A Department of Labor survey released earlier this year, Family and Medical Leave Act in 2012: Final Report, found that the law has had a positive effect on employees and their families without imposing an undue burden on employers.

Overall, the poll found, employers generally find it easy to comply with the FMLA and employees rarely abuse it. A whopping 91 percent of employers say complying with the FMLA has either no noticeable effect or a positive effect on business operations such as employee absenteeism, turnover and morale. And 90 percent of workers return to their jobs after FMLA leave—so the worry that employees will go on leave, then leave their jobs, is largely unfounded.

A Washington Post article pointed out that The United States is one of just three out of 177 nations that doesn’t require paid parental leave, and spotlighted some small businesses that go above and beyond to offer medical leave to employees in need, even though they aren’t required to under FMLA.

If you want to offer your employees unpaid leave, here are some suggestions:

  • Cross-train your employees so they can cover each other’s jobs. Doing this has a lot of benefits even if no one at your business ever needs to take medical leave. It makes handling minor sick days and vacations easier. It also helps your company deal with unexpected surges in demand without having to hire new workers or temps.
  • Consider alternatives. If employees don’t need total medical leave, think about whether an alternative such as working part-time or working from home could meet both your business and your employees’ needs.
  • Get legal advice. When you offer leave to one person, make sure you aren’t setting a precedent that will cause problems later on. Check with an attorney to set a policy you can live with.

It’s my belief that if you meet your employees halfway, they’ll meet you halfway – and that if you can help an employee out during a trying time in their life, you’ll have their eternal gratitude and loyalty.

It’s simply the human thing to do.

Newborn Photo via Shutterstock

Rieva Lesonsky Rieva Lesonsky is a Columnist for Small Business Trends covering employment, retail trends and women in business. She is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Visit her blog, SmallBizDaily, to get the scoop on business trends and free TrendCast reports.