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ADA Leave vs. FMLA Leave: Can Both Laws Apply?

Both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allow for some type of job-protected leave for qualifying employees. The FMLA applies when an employee has a serious health condition, and the ADA applies when they have a disability that interferes with their ability to perform their job.

Both FMLA and the ADA have their own guidelines and eligibility requirements, but in some cases, an employee may be eligible for leave under both laws.

Here’s what you need to know about ADA leave vs. FMLA leave, including what to do if an employee meets the criteria for both types of leave.

What Is FMLA Leave?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitles eligible employees to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for certain qualifying situations, including:

  • The birth or adoption of a child
  • The placement of a child in foster care
  • To care for a sick or injured family member
  • To address their own serious medical condition
  • For a qualifying exigency related to military service

Employees don’t have to take all 12 weeks of FMLA leave at once, and they can work with their employer to arrange for intermittent leave or a reduced work schedule.

FMLA leave differs from ordinary sick leave in that it's primarily for ongoing or chronic conditions, such as an overnight stay in a hospital, or an impairment that lasts for at least three days. This includes both physical and mental health conditions.

To be eligible for FMLA, an employee must work for a “covered employer,” which the Department of Labor (DOL) defines as:

  • Any state, federal, or local government agency
  • Any public or private school (primary or secondary)
  • A public-sector company with at least 50 employees

They also need to meet the following conditions of employment:

  • Have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year
  • Have worked for their employer for at least a year in total
  • Work at a location with at least 50 employees in a 75-mile radius

If an employee isn’t eligible for a leave of absence under FMLA, they may be eligible under the ADA, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), or state leave laws.

What Is ADA Leave?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to provide reasonable accommodation to employees with a disability that limits their ability to perform the essential functions of the job or interferes with major life activities.

ADA leave is just one of the many accommodations that an employer could provide, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Some examples of accommodations include:

  • Modifying equipment: A more suitable desk, computer equipment, or screen reader could make it easier for the employee to perform their duties.
  • Improving accessibility: A wheelchair ramp or ADA-accessible facilities could make it easier for the employee to access the work site. 
  • Adjusting work schedules: If an employee needs time to train a service animal, recover from surgery, or start a new medication, they could be eligible for a leave of absence or a reduced work schedule under the ADA.

Employers should initiate the ADA interactive process — a two-way dialogue with the employee — to find an accommodation that meets their needs without presenting an undue hardship to the employer. Employers don’t have to offer leave as the default option, but it should be on the table as a possible accommodation.

ADA leave is usually unpaid, but if the employer offers paid leave to other employees, they must provide “equal access to leave” under the ADA.

What Are the Differences Between ADA Leave vs. FMLA Leave?

ADA leave vs FMLA: person in a wheelchair happily typing on his laptop

The main difference between these two employment laws is that FMLA has a narrower focus — on short-term family and medical leave — while employee leave is just one of the many accommodations that are available under the ADA.

Here are three other differences between ADA leave and FMLA leave:

1. The ADA applies to more employers.

Private-sector companies with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from FMLA, and it only applies to employees who work within a 75-mile radius of 50 other employees.

The ADA applies to any company with 15 or more employees, and there’s no minimum employment period for qualified individuals.

2. There’s no upper limit to ADA leave.

Employees are limited to 12 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period under FMLA. The ADA doesn’t specify a maximum amount of leave, and an employee may be eligible for additional leave even if they’ve used up all 12 weeks of leave under FMLA.

Still, ADA leave isn’t open-ended, and the employee should provide an estimated date when they’ll be able to return to work.

3. There are different documentation requirements.

Employers can request medical documentation for both types of leave, but should use different forms for ADA leave vs. FMLA leave. The DOL provides a set of FMLA forms that can be filled out by the employee’s health care provider.

The ADA allows employers to request additional information, but only what’s necessary to assess the suitability of an accommodation or a leave of absence request.

In either case, it’s the employer’s obligation to keep medical information private, and to store it separately from other documents.

ADA Leave vs. FMLA Best Practices

Your human resources team will need to field leave requests and track leave balances. By adhering to these ADA and FMLA leave best practices, you’ll be able to meet your obligations under federal law, and streamline the leave management process:

1. Categorize leave requests appropriately.

Some circumstances will clearly fall under one law and not the other, but others may qualify for both. For example, a short-term medical issue could become a long-term disability, so that the ADA applies once FMLA leave has been exhausted.

It’s the employer’s obligation to ensure that each leave request is handled correctly — even if the employee doesn’t use the letters “FMLA” or “ADA” in their request.

2. Honor benefits and leave entitlements.

Neither FMLA nor the ADA guarantee paid leave, but employees could have protections under state leave law, such as accrued sick leave or paid time off requirements.

Under FMLA, employees are entitled to keep their health insurance coverage while on leave. Under the ADA, health insurance coverage only continues for as long as it would ordinarily be covered under the employer’s leave policies.

Employers can provide light duty as an accommodation under the ADA, but not as an alternative to FMLA leave.

3. Have a clear return-to-work policy.

Although both types of leave ensure some form of job protection, there are differences between ADA leave and FMLA leave when it comes to reinstatement.

FMLA entitles employees to return to the same job or an equivalent position, while the ADA allows for reassignment if the employee is unable to return to the same job or if doing so would present an undue hardship for the employer.

By having a clear return-to-work policy, you’ll make it easy for employees to return to work when they’re able to do so, and provide any necessary medical documentation, such as a fitness-for-duty certification.

Digitize LoA Management and Streamline Leave Requests 

Woman sitting on a wheelchair while talking on the phone

Both FMLA and the ADA provide the option for employees to take a leave of absence, but they cover different situations and have a different documentation process. Some scenarios may fall under both the ADA and FMLA, and your human resources team should be prepared to meet your obligations under both employment laws.

By digitizing the LoA process, you can empower employees to submit their own leave of absence requests and upload any necessary documentation online. Pulpstream makes it easy with our no-code, cloud-based leave management system.

Contact us to get a demo and learn more!