Counting to 12: The Four Methods of Determining an FMLA Year
Managing medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can seem like a daunting prospect. The scenarios are familiar – your new fifth-grade teacher is taking leave after having a baby; your long-time bookkeeper is taking leave to care for his ailing mother; your service manager is reducing his hours because of a chronic illness – but it can be challenging to understand and administer these policies.
For a lot of employers, one of the FMLA’s most confusing provisions is determining the applicable 12-month period in which employees can take up to 12 weeks of protected leave.
The FMLA affords you four methods of determining this 12-month period, each with its own pros and cons:
The Calendar Year
Measuring by calendar year is the most straightforward method: the year begins on January 1, and ends on December 31, and your employees can take 12 weeks of leave during this time. One issue to consider with this approach is employees can potentially take up to 24 weeks at one time, if the first 12 weeks encompass the final 12 weeks of the calendar year, and the second 12 weeks begin when the new calendar year starts. This can present challenges to business continuity depending on your employee’s role.
Any Fixed 12-month Period
Like the calendar year method, this method begins counting the year on a fixed date and ends 12 months later. You could, for example, choose to begin this period on the employee’s hire date, or align it with your fiscal year. You might also find there are state-specific laws which determine what date you must use under this method.
As with the calendar year method, this method presents the same potential challenge to business continuity.
A 12-month Period Measured Forward from the First Day of Your Employee’s Leave
Under this method, the 12-month period begins on the first day your employee takes FMLA leave. If FMLA leave is taken after that 12 months ends, their next 12-month period begins on the first day of that leave.
Here’s an example of how this works:
Jenny takes 12 weeks of FMLA-qualified leave beginning April 1, 2019, which starts the clock on her 12-month period and makes the end date March 30, 2020. In September of 2020, she begins a new 12 weeks of FMLA leave, and a new 12-month period begins. She is now in a 12-month period which will end in September of 2021.
This doesn’t entirely negate the challenge to business continuity outlined above – Jenny could have taken four weeks of leave in April 2019, then another 8 weeks in February and March of 2020 followed by 12 more weeks in April 2020, stacking a total of 20 weeks of leave. It does limit this risk somewhat, in that the amount of available leave left in the 12-month period will be reduced by the amount of the leave taken at the beginning of the period.
FMLA regulations require this method to be used when the qualifying reason for the leave is to care for a covered military servicemember with a qualifying exigency.
A 12-Month Period Measured Backward from the Date Your Employee Uses Any FMLA Leave
While the first three methods of determining your FMLA are straightforward, measuring forward from an identified start date, the rolling method, which measures backward from any date your employee takes any FMLA leave, can be more confusing.
To use this method, it is necessary to add up all FMLA leave your employee has taken in the past 12 months and subtract that total from the allotted 12 weeks. You may hear this method referred to as the “look back” method, as you are looking back over the previous 12 months.
Consider this example:
James takes six weeks of leave beginning April 1, 2019. He takes another four weeks of leave in July 2019, and two more in October 2019. He is not entitled to any additional leave until April 2020, when he will begin recouping days. He would recoup additional days in July 2020, and more still in October 2020, assuming he does not take additional leave.
In this scenario, James would have no available leave in March 2020, but would begin recouping days April 1, 2020. So, if James needed additional leave in September 2020, you would look back over the previous 12 months, and subtract the two weeks of FMLA leave taken in October 2019, leaving your employee with 10 weeks of leave available.
This method can take some time and effort to administer properly – your employee’s allotment of available time must be recalculated continually based on the 12 months preceding that day.
State law can expand employee access to unpaid, job-protected leave. It is, therefore, important to take into account all applicable state laws governing protected leave and ensure your leave policies comply with both the FMLA and state law. For more information about the FMLA, visit the Department of Labor’s website: https://www.dol.gov/whd/fmla/.