Understanding the difference between short-term disability and FMLA leave

When people need to take an extended leave from work, there's a lot for both the employee and the employer to consider about how workplace laws and policies affect the absence. What are the qualifications? How much time away can be given? Will it be paid or unpaid?

If you are asking yourself these questions, then there are two very important employment-related topics you need to know about: short-term disability insurance and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Let's define both and clarify some of the differences between the two.

What is short-term disability?

Short-term disability is a type of insurance that partially covers income for people who need to take time away from work because they are unable to perform job duties due to an illness or an injury. In many cases, employees are able to get short-term disability insurance through their employers, although employers are not usually required to provide it. Employees can also try to purchase their own short-term disability insurance from private insurance companies.

Typically, the injuries or illnesses covered through short-term disability insurance are temporary in nature. These kinds of health conditions impact a person's occupation, such as a musician breaking their hand or a worker giving birth.

What is the FMLA?

While short-term disability replaces a portion of the employee's income, the FMLA protects the employee's job. In fact, the FMLA provides up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave. Specifically, it allows an employee to take time off to deal with a serious medical issue or help care for a family member suffering from a medical condition.

Typically, an employee can use FMLA leave if:

  • They work for a public agency or company with at least 50 employees
  • They have worked for the company at least 12 months
  • They have logged at least 1,250 work hours during the 12 months before taking leave
  • They work at a location which has at least 50 employees within 75 miles

Similarities and differences between short-term disability and FMLA leave

Short-term disability and the FMLA both offer some form of protection for employees who need to take a leave of absence from work, but each has its own considerations, terms, and requirements.

The conditions for taking short-term disability are typically quite different than FMLA qualifications. For example, the FMLA requires employment for 12 months and 1,250 work hours. If the employee is eligible for FMLA leave and works for a covered employer, they can take up to 12 weeks leave.

On the other hand, employees may only have to work for as few as 90 days to be eligible for short-term disability, although that amount of time can vary from employer to employer. Also, in some cases, short-term disability can last longer than the 12 weeks provided in the FMLA — with some employers providing up to 26 weeks or more.

Another significant difference between short-term disability and FMLA leave is that short-term disability generally only applies to injuries and illnesses suffered by the employee, while the FMLA permits employees to take leave to care for family members with serious medical conditions in addition to their own medical concerns.

Paid vs. unpaid leave

Short-term disability is also a bit different in structure from FMLA, being a form of insurance rather than a law. A person who is approved for short-term disability usually receives some portion of pay during their absence — often between 50% and 70% of their weekly earnings — whereas FMLA does not require employers to provide pay.

The application process is also different. Short-term disability has certain waiting periods before a person can apply and companies can use their own discretion with requiring sick time and vacation time to be used first.

While the FMLA also has a procedural process, it does not require an employer to pay the person taking a leave of absence. An employer can make the call about whether the leave qualifies as FMLA, even though it covers a broader number of reasons for taking leave than short-term disability.

Qualifying for one, the other, or both

The decision to apply for short-term disability and FMLA leave often comes down to factors such as these:

  • Is the time off needed for a personal injury or illness, or will it be used for taking care of a new child or an ailing family member?
  • Can the person requesting the time off afford to sacrifice receiving an income, or is continuing to get paid some amount of money necessary?
  • Is 12 weeks enough, or does the employee need a slightly more flexible timeframe?
  • What kind of documentation can the person requesting a leave of absence provide?

There's also the possibility of combining the two, so at least part of the employee's FMLA leave is paid — although there are very specific rules for when that is possible.

Knowing the differences can make a smoother application process

The differences between short-term disability and FMLA aren't always very obvious. It's possible that if a person is ineligible for one, they may qualify for the other. Knowing the key differences between the two can help speed up the process and avoid setbacks for both parties, employer and employee alike.

The content appearing on this website is not intended as, and shall not be relied upon as, legal advice. It is general in nature and may not reflect all recent legal developments. Thomson Reuters is not a law firm and an attorney-client relationship is not formed through your use of this website. You should consult with qualified legal counsel before acting on any content found on this website.

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