Understanding Your Rights as a Federal Employee

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) permits eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for one of several qualifying reasons. In the private sector, employees can only take advantage of FMLA leave if their employer has a minimum of 50 employees nationwide. If you are a federal employee, you might be wondering if your agency is subject to FMLA rules.

The good news is that all federal agencies must comply with FMLA regulations and are not subject to the private sector’s 50-employee minimum rule. If you are a federal employee who has worked for your agency for at least a year, there is a good chance you will qualify for FMLA-protected leave. Below, we cover the specifics of what situations qualify for FMLA leave, how you go about requesting it as a federal employee, and how your agency is required to handle FMLA-related situations.

What Is FMLA Leave?

FMLA is a federal piece of legislation, codified in 1993, that seeks to give employees flexibility in managing medical conditions family-related emergencies while protecting their employment. The law permits eligible employees to take a maximum of 12 unpaid weeks off within a 1-year (12 month) period for a qualifying life event.

Life events that qualify for FMLA leave include:

  • Childbirth and care for an employee’s child within 1 year of birth
  • Adoption of a minor child for any period within 1 year of the adoption
  • Development of a serious medical condition or injury that imperils the employee’s ability to perform their job responsibilities
  • Development of a serious medical condition or injury in an employee’s immediate family member (a spouse, parent, or child) that requires the employee’s presence and care
  • Certain situations where an employee’s immediate family (spouse, parent, or child) being summoned by the U.S. Military to support a contingency operation

The leave guaranteed by the FMLA for these life events is unpaid, meaning an employee will not receive their normal salary or rate of pay for the duration of their absence. However, should they so choose, an employee can expend paid sick days (if the FMLA leave is due to a personal illness) or paid time off/vacation days for some or all of the FMLA leave period.

Federal employees can only engage in intermittent FMLA leave in a 12-month period under certain conditions. This refers to a scenario where, in lieu of taking a continuous 12 week absence, an employee instead requests to take 3 weeks at one point in the 12-month period and 4 weeks later on with that same period. We will discuss situations where employers are required to permit this request as well as those where employers have the ability to deny them below.

Am I Eligible to Take FMLA Leave?

If you are an employee of a United States federal agency, your “employer” is obligated to grant valid FMLA requests regardless of the number of employees specific to that agency. State and local governments are also automatically subject to FMLA regardless of size.

In order to qualify for FMLA leave, you will need to have worked for your current federal agency for a minimum of 12 months prior to the filing of your request. Additionally, you will need to have worked for a minimum of 1,250 hours – the equivalent of approximately 31.25 standard work weeks – within the past 12 months to remain eligible. This in effect precludes newer federal employees and many of those who only work part-time.

In filing your request, you will also need to reasonably prove that your life event necessitates the use of FMLA leave. If you are planning on taking leave for childbirth as a female, this will be fairly self-explanatory! If you are a male spouse, however, you may be asked to provide evidence of the pregnancy and the expected date of birth.

Producing Evidence and Filing Your FMLA Request

Should you or a family member be suffering from a critical illness or injury, you will likely need to produce evidence from a medical professional confirming details about the ailment. This will include answering questions about the diagnosis, the expected recovery time, and treatment plan. If you have suffered the injury yourself, a healthcare professional will also likely need to make formal recommendations on when they believe that you should return to work. Government agencies are looking to confirm that an injury or illness is substantially adverse enough to require FMLA leave.

The contents of the medical opinion that is submitted with your FMLA requests involving injury or illness will be critical to its success. It is recommended that you have an experienced employment attorney review the entirety of your request, including the medical comments, before submitting. If there is any fear that the wording of an opinion could result in a FMLA denial, seeking a second medical opinion may be necessary.

Finally, note that timing is important when submitting FMLA requests. A federal employee is obligated to give their agency as much notice of their intention to invoke FMLA leave as reasonably possible. In most nonemergency and foreseeable instances, that means submitting your request at least 30 days before the day you intend to begin your absence.

In emergency and unforeseeable situations involving pregnancy, injury, or illness are the reason for the request, employees must only give the agency as much notice as practically possible. For example, if your spouse goes into labor earlier than expected, you will not necessarily be subject to the 30 day rule of thumb and will in most cases be permitted to begin your leave immediately.

How Federal Agencies Must Comply with FMLA

Federal agencies are required by law to inform employees of their rights and abilities involving FMLA leave. The agency’s HR department should be able to produce the relevant forms for requesting a FMLA-related absence; the specific forms required depends on the reason for the request.

When you exercise your FMLA absence, your agency is required to keep you on any group health insurance plan you were participating in – with the same rates and conditions – prior to your departure. Your employment position must be restored, with the same rate of pay and benefits, when you return to work. If for any reason your previous position is not available or no longer exists, you must be installed in an equivalent position with identical pay and benefits as well as similar job responsibilities.

Agencies have some discretion in permitting intermittent leaves under FMLA depending on the reason for the absence. They must permit valid, intermittent FMLA leaves involving military exigencies or due to a serious medical condition or injury. Should you become gravely ill and recover within 3 months, requiring only 3 or 4 months of your 12-month FMLA allotment, you could in theory obtain another 2-3 months should your condition worsen later in the same 12-month period. Intermittent leaves or reduced schedules relating to childbirth, early childcare, and adoption can be permitted only at the discretion of the agency unless a serious medical condition develops in conjunction with these life events.

A federal agency cannot deny the protections afforded to you under FMLA. This means that they cannot fire you, demote you, reduce your pay or benefits, or engage in any other adverse action as a result of your seeking or using FMLA leave.

Your agency can also not intimidate or attempt to coerce you into not exercising your rights under FMLA. This can include any suggestion hinting that your position may not be available once you return should you take a lawful leave. Your position, or an equivalent position, must be provided upon your return. If such a position is not provided to you, or the pay or benefits are not identical, your agency has broken federal law.

How To Handle an Agency Denying Your FMLA Leave

If you file your FMLA leave with at least 30 days’ notice (or as soon as reasonably possible), provided all of the necessary information, and meet all of the eligibility requirements, it is your right to take your leave of absence while protecting your federal employment. Should your agency attempt to refuse your leave, fail to provide you with an appropriate position upon your return, or retaliate against you for exercising your rights, you have the ability to file an administrative complaint and a court complaint.

Our employment attorneys at Pines Federal have assisted federal employees with FMLA matters and are prepared to help you with your case. We can evaluate the specifics of your circumstances and advise on how best to move forward.

If you believe your FMLA rights have been violated, schedule a consultation by calling (800) 801-0598 or contacting us online.