Disability insurance and FMLA leave

While the FMLA protects your job, short-term disability insurance protects your income, and the two complement each other.

Amanda Shih author photoElissa


Amanda Shih

Amanda Shih

Editor & Licensed Life Insurance Expert

Amanda Shih is an editor and a licensed life, disability, and health insurance expert at Policygenius, where she writes about life insurance and disability insurance. Her expertise has appeared in Slate, Lifehacker, Little Spoon, and J.D. Power.

 & Elissa Suh

Elissa Suh

Senior Editor & Disability Insurance Expert

Elissa Suh is a senior editor and disability insurance expert at Policygenius, where she also covers wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

Updated February 17, 2022 | 5 min read

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The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to bond with a new child, recover from an illness, or because the employee is pregnant. The FMLA is a federal law, but some states have more robust medical and family leave laws that may include paid time off.

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While the FMLA protects your job, it doesn't replace your income. Even in the handful of states that require employers to offer paid leave, you may not be reimbursed your full income. To protect your income while you're out of work for an extended illness, you need disability insurance. Short-term disability insurance can pay benefits during your FMLA leave, while long-term disability can cover you after your FMLA leave is over.

Key Takeaways

  • FMLA is meant to protect your job, but not your income, when you need to take time off work for certain reasons, like maternity leave.

  • Short-term disability insurance is meant to protect your income, but not your job, when you are too ill or injured to work.

  • Short-term disability and FMLA provide different protections and coverages for different scenarios, and you can benefit from both at the same time.

Short-term disability insurance and FMLA 

Short term disability insurance and FMLA protect employees and under different circumstances. Many of the situations under which you'd be eligible for unpaid FMLA leave, like caring for an adopted child, do not apply to disability insurance. 

Reasons to take FMLA leave include:

  • Caring for a child or family member who is seriously ill

  • Caring for a newborn, or arranging for adoption or foster care

  • Taking maternity leave

  • Taking medical leave because of a serious health condition

FMLA leave allows you to take time off work with the assurance that you won’t be fired for it. You’re not paid during FMLA leave, but you can safely return to your job and earn an income when your leave is over.

Short-term disability insurance, on the other hand, pays you a benefit if you become injured or seriously ill and can no longer perform your job. Most people get short-term disability insurance from their employer.

You're eligible to receive disability insurance benefits as long as you meet the insurance company's definition of disability, and your coverage can extend to both pregnancy and childbirth. However, being pregnant and giving birth in and of themselves will not qualify you for short-term disability. Generally, you can't file a claim for benefits if you're physically able to work.

Reasons to file for short-term disability include:

  • Being unable to work due to an accident

  • Being unable to work due to a serious illness

Any pre-existing conditions you have may be excluded from your disability coverage. This isn't the case with FMLA leave. As long as you're eligible (you must have worked for your employer for a year or worked 1,250 hours), you're allowed to take the full 12 weeks of leave even if it’s due to a pre-existing condition.

Short-term disability insurance has a short elimination period, which means you don't have to wait that long to start receiving benefits once you become disabled. But it also has a short benefit period, which means you'll only receive disability benefits for three months to a year.

That's why many people who get short-term disability insurance through their employers purchase a separate long-term disability policy on their own so that the elimination periods stack. Your long-term disability benefits could begin around the time your short-term benefits are expiring. You can get disability insurance quotes with Policygenius.

Can you get short-term disability benefits and FMLA leave at the same time?

It's possible to start receiving short-term disability benefits while on FMLA leave. Short term disability benefits and FMLA leave operate independently of each other and have different reasons for which you can apply. For example, you could take FMLA leave when you become pregnant, and if you have complications from your pregnancy you could receive short-term disability benefits after filing a claim. 

→ Learn more about disability insurance and family planning

Social Security disability insurance and FMLA

Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) is a government-run program that pays you benefits if you become disabled and lose your job, just like private disability insurance but with smaller payments

You can apply for SSDI as soon as you become disabled, but you can't receive SSDI payments concurrently with your FMLA leave, since you're still technically employed. Approval for Social Security disability benefits can also take months or even years.

The Social Security Administration also typically grants benefits only to people whose disability is expected to last 12 months, or which has already lasted 12 months, in which case your FMLA period would have long since ended.

How paid leave works when you don't have disability insurance

Disability insurance is a great idea for anyone who wants to protect their income, like highly educated professionals with student loans to pay off, or people with mortgages and other types of secured debt obligations. If you can't afford disability insurance, you may still be eligible for paid family or medical leave if you live in certain states.

Every state has its own laws governing who's eligible for paid leave. Like the FMLA's own provisions, your employer is only required to offer paid leave if they employ a certain number of people (50 employees). Additionally, the length of time you can take off varies by state, as does the amount your employer is required to pay you.

Additionally, all employers who contract with the federal government are required to offer paid sick and family leave to their employees, under President Barack Obama's executive order No. 13706.

States with paid family leave

Paid family leave isn't necessarily for medical conditions, but extends to bonding with a newborn child in the first weeks or months of their life or with a foster child or adoptee as they begin living in your home. In addition to the FMLA's 12 weeks of unpaid leave, the following states offer a certain number of weeks of paid family leave benefits:

  • California

  • New Jersey

  • New York

  • Rhode Island

  • Washington, D.C.

States with paid medical leave

As with paid family leave, be sure to check with your state's laws to determine eligibility for paid medical leave. The following states have some kind of paid sick leave laws on the books:

  • Arizona

  • California

  • Connecticut

  • Maryland

  • Massachusetts

  • Michigan

  • Nevada

  • New Jersey

  • Oregon

  • Rhode Island

  • Vermont

  • Washington

  • Washington, D.C.

The following cities offer paid sick leave even while the state at large does not:

  • Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio Texas

  • Chicago, Illinois

  • Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota

  • New York, New York

  • Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Frequently asked questions

Do you get paid on FMLA?

You will not be paid when you take federal FMLA leave, but certain states and cities offer paid family and medical leave.

What is the difference between short-term disability and FMLA leave?

Short-term disability replaces your income by paying out benefits, while FMLA leave protects your job status by allowing you to return to your job after a period of not working. FMLA leave is not tied to your ability to do your job like disability insurance.

What illnesses qualify for short-term disability?

To receive disability benefits, you must meet the insurance company's definition of disability. Generally you need to prove unable to perform your job, whether from an accident or chronic illness, and show proof from a medical doctor in order to qualify for benefit payments.