Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Progress Report: Labor Gets Screwed Again

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) -- a bill authored by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and signed into law by President Clinton in 1993 -- grants eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year in case of a serious health condition, or to care for a new child or sick family member. The law protects an employee's job during such an absence and provides various benefit and privacy protections. For nearly fifteen years, the law has made it easier for over 50 million American workers to provide a better balance between work, health, and family life. The FMLA currently allows employees up to two days after the beginning of a shift to notify their employers of their intention to claim time off. But the Labor Department recently proposed changes to the law that would add restrictions to the FLMA -- provisions benefiting employers and making it more difficult for workers to take advantage of the law. Some of the proposed changes include requiring workers to notify their bosses in advance when taking non-emergency leave, allowing employers to require "fitness-for-duty" evaluations for those who took FMLA time off, requiring employees to obtain medical certifications of their illnesses every year, and allowing businesses to exclude workers who took FMLA time from perfect attendance awards.

Even if the Labor Department's proposals -- which some businesses regard as
welcome news -- are not adopted, the FMLA needs to expand in order to cover more American workers and to provide increased benefits. As it currently stands, the FMLA does not apply to businesses employing fewer than 50 people, a provision that allows the exclusion of nearly 40 million America workers from the law. Millions more are excluded because of rules not covering part-time workers and those who have not worked for their present employer for over one year. Yet "while unpaid leave has helped millions of families, there is little question that many employees have been unable to take time to care for a new child or an ill loved one because they cannot afford the lost pay." Indeed, a study released last year by Harvard University and McGill University found that the United States lags "far behind virtually all wealthy countries with regard to family-oriented workplace policies" such as maternity leave and paid sick days. According to the study, the United States is one of just five countries out of 173 "that does not guarantee some form of paid maternity leave." Expanding the FMLA is necessary because nearly "half of all full-time private sector workers (and three quarters of low-wage workers) in the U.S. get no paid sick days." Businesses also suffer in productivity and other workers face health risks when sick employees are forced to go to work. In fact, expanding employee benefits has overwhelming support: "95 percent of the public thinks it is unacceptable for employers to not provide paid sick leave" while "60 percent think it is illegal."


House, Education, and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) has said that the Labor Department proposal tightening the FMLA "clearly benefits employers at the expense of workers." Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, has also
criticized the proposals, saying they "will make it more difficult for workers to use this leave when they need it" and "impose burdensome new paperwork requirements on both workers and heath providers." Hearings on the Labor Department's proposals will be held this week in both the House and Senate. The National Journal notes that, under a new administration, Congress "could do away" with the Labor Department rule change proposals in "early in 2009 under the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to withdraw regulations within 60 session days after they are published."


On July 1, 2004, California's
Paid Family Leave (PFL) Law went into effect. The law is a 100 percent employee-funded provision that provides workers in that state "with a maximum of six weeks of partial pay [55% of wages up to a maximum of $882 per week] each year while taking time off from work to bond with a newborn baby, newly adopted or foster child, or to care for a seriously ill parent, child, spouse or registered domestic partner." While five other states have proposed similar bills to provide some form of paid leave, California is currently the only state mandating comprehensive paid family leave. Nearly 85% of California adult residents in every segment of the population support paid family leave, and one survey of California businesses found that more workers returned to their jobs where employers offered leave benefits beyond what is required.

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