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FMLA Return to Work Guidelines: A Complete Guide

When an employee takes a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), they have several rights and responsibilities when they return to work. These FMLA return to work guidelines can vary slightly depending on the type of leave, the length of leave, and the employee’s job description.

By having a clear return to work program, you’ll ensure that employees are fit to return to duty, and that you comply with all of the relevant FMLA regulations.

Here’s what you need to know about FMLA return to work guidelines, including how to streamline the reinstatement process by using a leave management system.

Who Is Eligible for FMLA?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that applies in all 50 states. Employees who meet the eligibility requirements can request up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave in a 12-month period for certain qualifying reasons, such as:

  • The birth of a child
  • The adoption of a child
  • The placement of a child in foster care
  • To care for an ill or injured family member
  • To treat the employee’s own serious health condition
  • For a qualifying exigency related to active duty military service

Eligible employees can take multiple periods of leave for more than one reason, as long as they don’t exceed 12 workweeks in all. The exception is for military caregiver leave, which allows for up to 26 weeks of leave to care for a covered servicemember.

Not all employers and employees are covered by FMLA. The U.S. Department of Labor ( defines a “covered employer” as:

  • A private company with at least 50 employees in a 75-mile radius
  • Public and private schools or education agencies of any size
  • State, local, and federal government departments

Employees must also meet the following conditions:

  • At least 12 months of employment with their employer
  • At least 1,250 hours of employment in the past year
  • At least 50 employees within 75 miles of their worksite

Employees are required to provide 30 days’ notice of their leave request if possible, and they may need to provide a medical certification from their health care provider.

FMLA Return to Work Guidelines Explained

Regardless of the type of leave (parental leave, military caregiver leave, or a qualifying medical reason), FMLA leave is job-protected. This means that the employee can’t be terminated while on leave, and they have the right to reinstatement.

FMLA leave isn’t paid, but they have the right to maintain their health benefits while on leave, as long as they continue to pay their share of health insurance premiums.

When the employee is ready to return to work, they should be returned to the same role or an “equivalent job,” as defined by the DOL. This means it must have:

  • The same pay: The equivalent position must have the same salary or wages as the original role, including any cost of living increases or bonuses that aren’t tied to the employee’s seniority or performance.
  • The same benefits: Employers aren’t required to provide any benefits while an employee is on leave — other than a group health plan — but they must restore the previous benefits when the employee returns.
  • The same responsibilities: The position must be “virtually identical” in terms of working conditions, job duties, and status. Employers can’t demote an employee to a less prestigious position while keeping their pay and benefits the same.
  • The same schedule: An employee should expect to return to the same working hours, and can’t be reassigned to a substantially different shift or worksite.

These employee rights vary slightly if the employee requests to take intermittent leave or a reduced leave schedule. They can be temporarily reassigned to an alternate role with alternate duties, but must still be allowed to keep the same pay and benefits.

Are There Exceptions to the Reinstatement Requirement?

FMLA return to work guidelines: employees discussing something

FMLA’s return to work guidelines provide employees with substantial FMLA rights, but they aren’t unlimited. There are at least four situations in which an employee’s FMLA leave entitlement may not guarantee them the right to return to work:

  • The employee exceeds 12 weeks of leave. FMLA’s job protections expire after 12 weeks of leave. However, if the employee is unable to complete the essential functions of their job due to a disability, they may qualify for additional leave as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • The job no longer exists. If the job was eliminated for reasons unrelated to the employee’s leave (such as the removal of an entire department), the employee has “no greater right” to keep their job than if they hadn’t taken leave.
  • The employee is a “key employee.” The DOL defines a key employee as one who is “among the highest-paid 10 percent of all of the employer’s employees within 75 miles.” The employer can deny reinstating them if it would result in “substantial and grievous economic injury” to the organization.
  • The employee committed FMLA fraud. If the employee lied about their reason for taking leave, such as submitting false evidence of their medical condition, the employer isn’t obligated to reinstate them.

Although these exceptions do exist, the burden of proof is high, so employers should do their due diligence to comply with FMLA return to work guidelines.

FMLA Return to Work Best Practices

It’s a good idea to keep the lines of communication open when an employee is on leave. Although the employee isn’t obligated to provide details of their treatment or recovery, the employer can ask for updates regarding when they might return to work.

If the employee returns to work without warning, the employee has two business days to return them to their position. This is the case even if the employee’s leave period turned out to be much shorter than they originally anticipated.

By communicating during the leave period, you can set a return date ahead of time to avoid any issues, while being sensitive to last-minute changes in their situation.

Your human resources team should also be tracking FMLA leave balances so you can give your employees advance notice if their 12 weeks of leave are about to run out.

Request a Fitness-for-Duty Certification

If an employee has taken FMLA leave for a medical condition, the employer can request a fitness-for-duty certification from their health care provider. This must be explained in the “designation notice” provided when you approve an employee's leave request.

The employer can require the certification form to address the “essential functions” of the job, otherwise the employee can provide a general statement of fitness.

If their health care provider recommends modified duty or temporary work restrictions, the employer can offer light duty as an alternative to reinstatement, but can’t require it. The employee retains the right to return to their original job, even if they accept light duty temporarily, until 12 weeks are up.

If the employee still can’t perform the essential functions of their job, or their health care provider recommends permanent work restrictions, the employer may need to begin the ADA interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation.

Streamline Your Return to Work Policy With Pulpstream

Entrepreneur working from home

The Family and Medical Leave Act entitles employees to return to work at the end of the leave period, with a few exceptions. In most cases, they must be reinstated in the same role or an equivalent position with the same pay and benefits. While on unpaid FMLA leave, they may also be entitled to draw from accrued sick leave or vacation leave according to your organization’s paid leave policy.

With a cloud-based HR platform like Pulpstream, it’s easy to adhere to FMLA return to work guidelines and streamline the reinstatement process. Employees can upload their FMLA forms using a self-service platform, protecting their privacy, keeping the lines of communications open, and reducing incidents of FMLA fraud.

Contact Pulpstream today to request a demo and learn more!