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4 Options for When an FMLA Leave Year Starts

Mar 5, 2024

New Proposed DOL Rule 2023
Paul Kramer

Paul Kramer

Director of Compliance

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) is a crucial piece of legislation that provides essential worker protections, allows eligible employees of covered employers to take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for certain family and medical reasons (or 26 workweeks for military caregiver leave).  But it can often be challenging for employers and employees alike to determine how it should be used properly.  

When does an employee’s FMLA leave year begin? To help employers ensure proper compliance with these mandates, this article clarifies the different options available for defining the FMLA leave year and the implications of each choice. 

Except for military caregiver leave, employers may choose one of four options for determining the FMLA leave year. The same 12-month period must apply to all employees unless an employer has eligible employees in more than one state and a state law requires a particular method for determining the leave year. In this case, employers may comply with the state law for all employees in that state and use a different 12-month period for employees in other states.  

Here are the four options employers may use as their FMLA leave year: 

The Calendar Year. The calendar year, January 1 through December 31, is the simplest approach for measuring an employee’s FMLA leave year. The problem with the calendar year method, however, is that employees can lawfully “stack” up to 24 consecutive workweeks of leave by taking the final 12 weeks of one calendar year as FMLA leave and beginning a new 12-week leave on January 1st. Many employers avoid the calendar year option for this reason.

Any Fixed 12-Month Period. This approach includes time periods such as the company’s fiscal year or a leave year starting on the anniversary of an employee’s employment. Similar to the calendar year method, this approach will allow employees to stack 24 consecutive workweeks of FMLA leave over two fixed year periods.

A 12-Month Period Measured Forward. Another FMLA leave year is the 12-month period measured forward from the date an employee’s FMLA leave begins. Under this approach, the next 12-month leave year starts the first time the worker takes FMLA leave after completing the prior 12-month leave period.

A Rolling 12-Month Period. The rolling 12-month period approach, also known as the look-back method, measures leave use backward from the date an employee takes any FMLA leave. Each time a worker uses FMLA leave, the employee’s leave balance is what is remaining of the 12 weeks not taken during the immediately preceding 12 months. The rolling 12-month period method is popular with employers because it prevents workers from stacking more than 12 workweeks of leave at a time. 

As for military caregiver leave, a “single 12-month period” must be used to track this type of FMLA leave. The single 12-month period starts the first day the employee takes military caregiver leave and ends 12 months later, regardless of the leave year chosen by the employer for other kinds of FMLA leave. But employees are limited to a combined total of 26 workweeks of leave for all FMLA qualifying reasons during this single 12-month period. 

Employers must inform their employees of the FMLA leave year they have selected, or the Department of Labor will require the employer to use the leave year most beneficial to the worker. Organizations are allowed to change to a different leave year as long as 60 days’ notice of the change is given to their employees and the full benefit of 12 weeks of FMLA leave is retained by all workers during the transition. Employers should consult an HR professional when choosing the best leave year option for their company. 

Navigating the FMLA leave year options requires careful consideration for both employers and employees. Understanding the nuances of each method, from the calendar year to the rolling 12-month period, is crucial for ensuring compliance and maximizing the benefits of the FMLA. Employers must communicate their chosen leave year clearly to their employees and provide ample notice if changes are made. By selecting the most appropriate leave year option and staying informed about the specific rules for military caregiver leave, organizations can create a supportive environment that upholds the rights of employees while maintaining operational efficiency. 

Discover key 2023 workplace compliance trends and prepare for 2024 with the State of Compliance Report for U.S. and Canadian employers.

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