What Are Federal Employees’ Rights Under the FMLA?

January 26, 2023
The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford

All federal employees are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). If you work for any federal agency, department or office and meet the FMLA’s eligibility criteria, you are entitled to take job-protected leave to care for yourself or a loved one under a variety of circumstances.

But, not all federal employees will meet the eligibility criteria, and the FMLA does not cover family and medical leave in all circumstances. With this in mind, here is what you need to know about your rights under the FMLA as an employee of the U.S. federal government:

Federal Employees’ Eligibility for Job-Protected Leave Under the FMLA

The first thing you need to know is whether you are eligible for the FMLA’s protections. This is based on your tenure with the federal government (in most cases). Specifically, in order to be eligible for job-protected leave under the FMLA, most federal employees must:

  • Have worked for the government for at least 12 months; and,
  • Have worked at least 1,250 hours during the 12 months immediately preceding your leave (an average of 25 hours per week over 50 weeks).

But there are some exceptions. For example, if you are on a temporary appointment of 12 months or less, you may still be able to qualify for FMLA leave. Employees of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and Postal Rate Commission and certain employees of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and Veterans Health Administration (VHA) are also exempt from the FMLA’s job tenure requirements.

When Eligible Federal Employees Can Take FMLA Leave

If you are eligible to take leave under the FMLA, then the next thing you need to know is when FMLA leave is available. As the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) explains, eligible federal employees are entitled to take up to 12 workweeks of job-protected, unpaid leave in any 12-month period for any of the following purposes:

1. The Birth of a Child and Newborn Care

Eligible federal employees can use FMLA leave to take up to 12 weeks of leave in connection with the birth of their son or daughter. Federal employees can also take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn son or daughter—though they must do so within 12 months of birth. Pursuant to the federal regulations promulgated under the FMLA, federal employees can use FMLA leave prior to their child’s birth either:

  • “Because of the employee’s serious health condition related to the anticipated event of the employee giving birth to a son or daughter; or
  • “In order to care for the birth mother of the employee’s expected son or daughter in connection with the birth mother’s serious health condition related to pregnancy.”

2. Placing a Child for Adoption or Foster Care

Federal employees can also use FMLA in connection with placing their son or daughter for adoption or foster care. This includes taking leave for the purpose of “engag[ing] in activities necessary to allow an anticipated adoption or a foster care arrangement to proceed.”

3. To Recover from a Serious Health Condition

The FMLA entitles eligible federal employees to job-protected, unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks when they are suffering from a “serious health condition” that prevents them from performing the essential functions of their job. A “serious health condition” is defined as an “injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition” that entails or requires any of the following:

  • Pregnancy, prenatal care or childbirth
  • Inpatient care
  • Multiple treatments
  • Periodic treatment over an extended period of time that may result in episodic incapacity
  • A period of incapacity of more than three consecutive days
  • Long-term or permanent incapacity “for which treatment may not be effective”  

4. To Care for a Family Member Who Has a Serious Health Condition

In addition to taking leave to address their own serious health conditions, eligible federal employees can also take FMLA leave to care for family members who have been diagnosed with serious health conditions. This specifically applies with respect to a federal employee’s:

  • Spouse
  • Son or daughter
  • Parent

5. A “Qualifying exigency” Related to a Family Member’s Service in the U.S. Armed Forces

Finally, along with medical leave, the FMLA also entitles eligible federal employees to job-protected, unpaid leave if they need time off for any “qualifying exigency” related to a spouse’s, child’s or parent’s military service. This includes exigencies arising during a family member’s deployment or as a result of an eligible family member being called to serve.

Some examples of “qualifying exigencies” under the FMLA include:

  • Short-notice deployment (within seven calendar days)
  • Official ceremonies, programs and events
  • Family support and assistance programs
  • Arranging for childcare or schooling for the federal employee’s children
  • Making financial or legal arrangements due to a covered family member’s deployment
  • To obtain counseling when the need for counseling “arises from the covered active duty or call to covered active duty”
  • To spend time with a covered family member who is on short-term leave

As the OPM explains, “FMLA leave is in addition to . . . paid time off available to an employee.” In other words, eligible federal employees can take FMLA leave in addition to using their annual leave or sick leave (“consistent with current laws and OPM’s regulations”). However, as the OPM also notes, the amount of sick leave that federal employees can use to care for family members is limited (to a maximum of 12 weeks per year), and sick leave generally cannot be used for non-medical purposes—such as qualifying exigencies related to a family member’s military service.

Discuss Your Rights Under the FMLA with an Experienced Attorney

If you have questions about your FMLA eligibility or if you believe that you have improperly been denied FMLA leave as a federal employee, we encourage you to contact us for a confidential consultation. To discuss your legal rights with an experienced attorney at The Law Firm of J.W. Stafford, please call 410-514-6099 or request an appointment online today.