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September 12, 2019 | Time and Attendance | Posted by Bob Greene, Senior HR Industry Analyst at Ascentis

Understanding ADA and FMLA Requirements for Employers

What are ADA and FMLA requirements for employers? 

People miss work. That’s just a fact of doing business. Things like bouts of the flu, dental appointments, and sick kids are all built into the day-to-day operations of most employers. Sometimes, though, situations arise that require employees to take more than a day or two off from work. When longer-term leaves are called for, it’s important that employers know their responsibilities and their options. 

In the U.S., there are two key pieces of federal legislation governing how much health-related leave employees can take and what circumstances qualify for taking it. Navigating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can be tricky, as the two acts share several similarities. Even so, each act was drafted to fulfill a specific function in the workplace. Understanding the many distinct differences between the two is vital for any employer striving to stay compliant and to provide a supportive work environment for all employees. 

Key ADA requirements for employers 

Established in 1990, the ADA was conceived as an attempt to extend protections like those established in the civil rights legislation of the ‘60s and ‘70s to people with disabilities. ADA coverage is divided into five titles, Title I being most relevant to employee leave. Title I specifies that private employers with 15 or more employees must provide “reasonable accommodations,” including work leave, to “qualified individuals with disabilities.” Those qualifications include any “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” 

Key FMLA requirements for employers 

The Family and Medical Leave Act was enacted in 1993 to establish protections for American workers dealing with emergencies, extended illnesses, and major life events. FMLA applies to organizations that employ 50 or more workers for at least 20 weeks of the year. It gives workers the right to take up to 12 weeks of leave for circumstances related to illness, injury, childbirth, caregiving, military service, and several other considerations. 

FMLA vs. ADA for employers 

While it’s true that employer FMLA and ADA rules cover similar ground, the two acts are actually quite distinct. Here’s a breakdown of some key FMLA vs. ADA considerations for employers:  
  • Employer ADA rules apply to most organizations employing 15 or more people, while employer FMLA rules apply to organizations employing 50 or more people. FMLA also covers public employers such as state and local governments, and elementary and secondary schools.  
  • ADA eligibility begins on the date of hire for any qualified individual with a disability. FMLA eligibility begins after an employee has been employed for 12 months and worked at least 1250 total hours.  
  • ADA rules cover only employees who meet the act’s qualifications for disabilities, generally people with long-term physical or mental impairments. FMLA rules apply to all employees and are focused more on non-chronic circumstances including the birth, adoption, or fostering of a child; dealing with a serious illness (their own or a family member’s); or addressing issues related to a family member’s military service.  
  • The duration of ADA leave is subjective and can be worked out between employers and employees on a case-by-case basis depending on how long it will take the employee to get back to working capability. The duration of FMLA leave is limited to a total of 12 weeks within a one-year period, which can be taken at one time or interspersed throughout the year. An amendment to FMLA allows caregivers giving medical aid to active-duty military service people to take up to 26 weeks of leave.  
  • The “F” in FMLA stands for “family,” and the act’s accommodations take that into consideration. FMLA leave can be requested by employees providing care for a spouse, parent, or child dealing with serious physical or mental illnesses or injuries. ADA leave generally applies only to the employee in question.  
  • Under both ADA and FMLA rules, an employer may (but is not required to) request medical information for the employee taking leave.   
  • Both ADA and FMLA rules require employers to hold open positions and maintain benefits for workers who request leave. The ADA does allow exceptions in cases where an employee’s absence would create “undue hardship” for the employer, a term defined on a case-by-case basis. 
In certain cases, ADA and FMLA leave may be used together. An employee undergoing a lengthy treatment for a chronic illness, for instance, might qualify as disabled under ADA guidelines and could then request further leave after the FMLA’s specified 12 weeks have been used.

While it may come naturally to think in terms of FMLA vs. ADA for employers, the two acts are not really in competition with each other. Each was drafted with an eye toward addressing a specific need for workers facing specific hardships. The fact is that long-term illnesses, family emergencies, and major life events are always going to be a factor in any workplace. The FMLA and ADA are useful tools to help both employers and employees navigate these occurrences as smoothly as possible with minimal impact on your workflow. 

FMLA vs. ADA for the states 

While the above details apply to FMLA at the federal level, many states (and even some counties and cities) have additional laws, offering employees more expanded FMLA rights than the federal law requires. For example, currently at least six states and DC apply the FMLA to employers with smaller active fulltime headcounts than the federal law. At least 10 states expand the definition of “family member” vs. the federal definition. At least three states expand the reasons that an employee may use FMLA, and at least eight states and DC have added FMLA-like employee protections to take unpaid time off for personal priorities like a child’s school or educational activities, family member routine medical visits, or to attend to the effects of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault. 

Want to learn more about these requirements for employers? Check out our on-demand webinar, The Do’s and Don’ts of FMLA 

Bob Greene currently serves as Senior HR Industry Analyst at Ascentis. Bob’s 40 years in the human capital management industry have been spent in practitioner, consultant and vendor/partner roles. As practitioner, he managed payroll for a 5,000-person bank in New Jersey. As consultant, he spent 8 years advising customers in HRMS, and payroll and benefits system design as well as acquisition strategies. Bob also built a strategic HCM advisory practice for Xcelicor (later acquired by Deloitte Consulting.)