When the FMLA, ADA and Workers’ Compensation Law Intersect

by George Morrison

The interaction of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and workers’ compensation laws is notoriously complex.  The best way to handle the interaction of these laws is to know when each law is implicated and exactly what each law requires.  Once an employer understands when each of these laws applies and what they require, it will be simpler to navigate their interaction.

Step 1: Determine Which Laws Apply.

The first step is to determine which laws apply.  To be subject to the FMLA, an employer must have at least 50 employees, within 75 miles.  If an employer has fewer than 50 employees, it does not need to concern itself with the requirements of the FMLA.  However, if an employer operates in a state that has a family and medical leave law, it must check whether the state law has a lower coverage threshold.  To be subject to the ADA, an employer must have at least 15 employees.  A smaller company should check whether a disability-related state law has a lower coverage threshold.  Workers’ compensation laws can apply to businesses with as few as one employee.  Workers’ compensation laws vary from state to state, so it is important for an employer to know what its state requires.

Step 2: Determine What Each Law Requires.

After determining which laws may apply, another step that is helpful in navigating the intersection is to master the basic leave rights employees hold under each law.

FMLA. The FMLA provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave for an employee’s own or a family member’s serious health condition, for the birth or adoption of a child, and military exigencies. The law also provides 26 weeks of military caregiver leave. An employer must return an employee to the same or an equivalent position (with some exceptions). Leave may be taken in one block, intermittently or on a reduced schedule. To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must work for 12 months for an employer and work at least 1,250 hours in those 12 months.

ADA. The ADA prevents employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants because they are a qualified individual with a disability. The ADA does not explicitly provide leave rights. The ADA requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee or prospective employee with a disability, and leave may be considered a reasonable accommodation. A disability is an impairment that substantially interferes with a major life function or activity.

Workers’ Compensation.  Workers’ compensation laws generally do not provide job-protected leave.

Step 3: Analyze Each Situation Systematically.

Once an employer determines that it is subject to any of the above laws and understands what the purpose of each law is and what they provide, the employer can then apply that knowledge to the situation it may be facing.  When evaluating the unique facts and circumstances of a situation, an employer should follow these basic rules:

  1. Assess the situation under each law separately — It does not matter which law is applied first, but each law must be applied separately to determine the outcome under that statute.
  2. The law that provides the most benefit to the employee trumps — In some situations, one of the laws may dictate that an employer has no obligation to an employee, while another law may require a significant obligation.  As a general rule, the law that is most favorable to the employee must be followed.
  3. Re-evaluate the situation under each law when new information regarding the employee’s condition is received, or a deadline passes under one of the laws — This task requires excellent coordination.  Supervisors are usually the first to receive new information on an employee’s condition, while the office of human resources typically monitors deadlines under laws such as the FMLA.


While navigating through the intersection of the FMLA, ADA, and workers’ compensation laws may seem challenging at first, when approached and analyzed in a systematic way, resolution of the legal issues becomes more manageable.  A separate analysis of each law’s requirements under each situation will help avoid violations of the laws and, ultimately, potentially expensive and disruptive litigation.

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