Counting to 12: The Four Methods of Determining an FMLA Year

15 February, 2022

Managing medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) can seem like a daunting prospect. The scenarios are familiar – your new fifth-grade teacher is taking leave after having a baby; your long-time bookkeeper is taking leave to care for his ailing mother; your service manager is reducing his hours because of a chronic illness – but it can be challenging to understand and administer these policies.

For a lot of employers, one of the FMLA’s most confusing provisions determining the applicable 12-month period in which employees can take up to 12 weeks of protected leave.

The FMLA affords you four methods of determining this 12-month period, each with its own pros and cons:

The Calendar Year

Measuring by calendar year is the most straightforward method: the year begins on January 1, and ends on December 31, and your employees can take 12 weeks of leave during this time. One issue to consider with this approach is that employees can potentially take up to 24 weeks at one time, if the first 12 weeks encompass the final 12 weeks of the calendar year, and the second 12 weeks begins when the new year starts. This can present challenges to business continuity depending on your employee’s role.

Any Fixed 12-month Period

Like the calendar year method, this method begins counting the year on a fixed date, and ends 12 months later. You could, for example, choose to begin this period on the employee’s hire date, or align it with your fiscal year. You might also find there are state-specific laws which determine what date you must use under this method.

As with the calendar year method, this method presents the same potential challenge to business continuity.

A 12-month Period Measured Forward from the First Day of Your Employee’s Leave

Under this method, the 12-month period begins on the first day your employee takes FMLA leave. If they take FMLA leave after that 12 months ends, their next 12-month period begins on the first day of that leave.

Here’s an example of how this works:

Jenny takes 12 weeks of FMLA-qualified leave beginning April 1, 2018, which starts the clock on her 12-month period and makes the end date March 30, 2019. In September of 2019, she begins a new 12 weeks of FMLA leave, and a new 12-month period begins. She is now in a 12-month period which will end in September of 2020.

This doesn’t entirely negate the challenge to business continuity outlined above – Jenny could have taken four weeks of leave in April 2018, then another 8 weeks in February and March of 2019 followed by 12 more weeks in April 2019, stacking a total of 20 weeks of leave. It does limit this risk somewhat, in that the amount of available leave left in the 12-month period will be reduced by the amount of the leave taken at the beginning of the period.

FMLA regulations require this method to be used when the qualifying reason for the leave is to care for a covered military servicemember with a qualifying exigency.

A 12-Month Period Measured Backward from the Date Your Employee Uses Any FMLA Leave

While the first three methods of determining your FMLA are straightforward, measuring forward from an identified start date, the rolling method, which measures backward from any date your employee takes any FMLA leave, can be more confusing.

To use this method, it is necessary to add up all FMLA leave your employee has taken in the past 12 months and subtract that total from their allotted 12 weeks. You may hear this method referred to as the “look back” method, as you are looking back over the previous 12 months.

Consider this example:

Your employee takes six weeks of leave beginning April 1, 2018. They take another four weeks of leave in July 2018, and two more in October 2018. They are not entitled to any additional leave until April 2019, when they will begin recouping days. They would recoup additional days in July 2019, and more still in October 2019.

In this scenario, your employee would have no available leave in March 2019, but would begin recouping days April 1, 2019. So, if this same employee needed additional leave in September 2019, you would look back over the previous 12 months, and subtract the two weeks of FMLA leave taken in October 2018, leaving your employee with 10 weeks of leave available.

This method can take some time and effort to administer properly – your employee’s allotment of available time must be recalculated continually based on the 12 months preceding that day.

State law can expand employee access to unpaid, job-protected leave. It is therefore important to take into account an applicable state laws governing protected leave, and ensure your leave policies comply with both the FMLA and state regulations. For more information about the FMLA, visit the Department of Labor’s website:


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