The FMLA allows eligible employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period. Don't assume, however, that the FMLA's 12-month period equates to a calendar year. In fact, the FMLA allows employers to choose from four different methods of calculating the 12-month period:
- The calendar year.
- Any fixed 12-month "leave year," such as a fiscal year, a year
required by State law, or a year starting on an employee's
- The 12-month period measured forward from the date any
employee's first FMLA leave begins.
- A "rolling" 12-month period measured backward from the date an
employee uses any FMLA leave.
Employers are free to choose any one of these four methods, as long as the choice is applied consistently and uniformly to all employees. Once a company picks one, it cannot change to another without first giving all employees at least 60 days notice, and only if the change does not cause any employees to lose any leave time.
There are pluses and minuses to each of these options. The first two options are definitely the easiest to administer. However, they could allow for employees' double-dipping. An employee with a serious health condition could take 12 weeks of leave at the end of the year and 12 weeks at the beginning of the following year (provided the employee recertifies the need for the leave).
Under option four, each time an employee takes FMLA leave the remaining leave entitlement would equal any balance of the 12 weeks that had not been used during the immediately preceding 12 months. For example, if an employee has taken eight weeks of leave during the past 12 months, an additional four weeks of leave could be taken. If an employee used four weeks beginning February 1, four weeks beginning June 1, and four weeks beginning December 1, the employee would not be entitled to any additional leave until February 1 of the next year. However, beginning on the next February 1, the employee would only be entitled to four weeks of leave, with an additional four to accrue on June 1. and then again on December 1. This method offers employers the most flexibility, but is clearly the most difficult to administer and track.
Option three perhaps offers the best balance between protecting a businesses continuity of operations and ease of administration. Under this choice, an employee would be entitled to 12 weeks of leave during the year beginning on the first date FMLA leave is taken; the next 12-month period would not begin until the first time FMLA leave is taken after completion of any previous 12-month period.
Importantly, you have to designate one of these options. If an employer fails to do so, a court will apply the option that provides the most beneficial outcome for the employee.