One of the most important rights employees have in the United States is job-protected leave for medical issues. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is the landmark federal law establishing that right – in limited circumstances. It provides up to 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave per 12-month period. While commonly used for pregnancy and childbirth, the FMLA encompasses a broad range of medical conditions that impact employees and their family members.

Here are five key things employees should know about the FMLA:

  1. Not all employers are covered. Only those with 50 or more employees are required to provide FMLA leave. (Government employers are also covered, regardless of their number of employees.)
  2. Not all employees are eligible. To claim FMLA leave, you must have worked with the same employer for at least 12 months (although that period doesn’t need to be continuous). You must also have logged at least 1250 hours over the previous 12 months, which averages out to around 24 hours per week for year-round employment.
  3. It applies to you and your family members. You can take FMLA leave to care for a family member – that is, a spouse, parent or child.
  4. You don’t have to take it all at once. When necessary for medical reasons, you can take the leave intermittently or use it to work a part-time schedule. Note, however, that employers are still only required to provide 12 weeks in a 12-month period, regardless of whether it’s intermittent or in one solid block.
  5. You’re entitled to the same or equivalent job upon your return. Job protection is at the core of the FMLA. However, your employer isn’t required to give you the exact same job. The law only requires an “equivalent” job in terms of pay, benefits, location and working conditions. The job responsibilities and duties must be substantially similar.

Keep in mind that the FMLA only sets the minimum protections required by law. Many employers have more generous policies that offer paid leave and extended job protection. State law may also provide greater protections. Talk to an employment lawyer to learn more.