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What Employers Must Know About FMLA

When the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) became law in 1993, it introduced new requirements for employers. The Department of Labor oversees many workplaces to ensure that the worker rights created by FMLA are upheld.

At its core, FMLA provides workers with the right to unpaid leave, a continuation of medical coverage during that leave, and the ability to return to work after the leave is over. There are also military leave provisions under FMLA. Violations can be costly for employers who don’t follow the rules. 

Where Does FMLA Apply?

FMLA applies to many but not all businesses. Private-sector employers with 50 or more employees working 20 or more work weeks in a given year must allow for family and medical leave. In the public sector, local, state, and federal employees, including those working in schools, are also granted rights under FMLA. The largest group of employees not protected by FMLA are those working for smaller businesses.

Employees who must be provided with FMLA leave rights include the following:

  • Those with 12 or more months of employment with their employer;
  • Those who work for a covered employer (see above);
  • Those who work in a place where the employer has 50 or more employees within 75 miles; and,
  • Those who have worked at least 1,250 hours in the year preceding the requested leave.

Questions about whether a specific employee qualifies for FMLA protection can be complicated. It is vital to answer those questions correctly to avoid potential liability for FMLA violations.

Everything from the details of FMLA compliance to the company’s attitude toward FMLA claims should be considered in formulating a strategy.

Potential Harm from FMLA Noncompliance

The Wage and Hour Division (“WHD”) of the Department of Labor is responsible for enforcing FMLA compliance. The WHD can investigate on its own or investigate following specific complaints from employees. These investigations typically involve claims of interference or claims of retaliation.

The WHD can seek reparations for a wronged employee when it comes to penalties. The employee can also pursue a civil action in court to seek compensation. In either case, the loss for the employer will likely take one or more of these forms, below.

  • Back pay: This includes any salary, hourly wages, or benefits the employee should have received but didn’t due to the violation.
  • Front pay: This includes salary, hourly wages, or benefits the employee would have gained in the future but for the FMLA violation.
  • Liquidated damages: Employees can receive an additional sum equal to all the compensatory damages they received if the employer is found to have acted in bad faith. That effectively doubles the damages paid to an employee who was wronged.
  • Equitable relief: The court can order an employer to reinstate a fired employee, promote an employee, or otherwise put the employee in the position they would have been in but for the FMLA violation.
  • Fines: Even in the absence of a specific case of denied leave, FMLA violations can cost an employer money. Employers must meet requirements such as conspicuously posting notice of FMLA provisions and giving information when employees complain of FMLA violations. Each instance can result in a fine of $173. 

Proper Training and Approach to FMLA Compliance

Employers need a top-down understanding of the rules of FMLA. Misunderstandings at any level of management or Human Resources can result in costly mistakes. Everything from the details of FMLA compliance to the company’s attitude toward FMLA claims should be considered in formulating a strategy.

From an employer’s perspective, improper FMLA leave requests can be costly and create a poor working environment. It is fair to want to hold employees accountable; however, that should not spill over into improperly denied requests, interference with FMLA leave, or retaliation. Proper training documentation and processes can prevent significant legal expenses and lead to a better working environment for everyone.


In-state, you may also reference: Colorado Division of Human Resources, and FMLA and State Family Medical Leave.


Doug Griess and John Snow of Hackstaff & Snow, LLC, are top Denver business attorneys with expertise spanning various industries. Specializing in business law, litigation, intellectual property, tax law, and dispute resolution, John Snow and Doug Griess offer an in-depth understanding and knowledge of general corporate rules and regulations and are a trusted resource for business owners throughout Colorado.