The Family and Medical
January/February 2003 IBEW Journal
Almost every family experiences at some time a serious medical problem or a care-giving need that requires time off from work. Without job-protected family and medical leave, employees face the difficult choice of returning to work prematurely, giving up their jobs, or not providing their families the care and support they need.
Nearly 10 years ago on February 5, 1993, President Clinton addressed that challenge by signing one of the most significant pro-worker, pro-family statutes in recent times: the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It was the first bill he signed into law, and the first national policy designed specifically to help working men and women balance their family and work responsibilities. It was also an attempt to address lingering problems of gender discrimination in the workplace, where women disproportionately felt the burden of juggling jobs and caring for sick family members.
Since 1993, millions of workers have taken FMLA leave to care for their loved ones without jeopardizing their jobs or health insurance. But in many cases, workers still do not take advantage of unpaid FMLA leave because they cannot afford a temporary loss of wages. As the statutes tenth anniversary approaches, it is in danger of being diluted or destroyed by the anti-labor agenda of the Republican majority now controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress.
Current FMLA Provisions
Although many workers think FMLA covers only maternity leave, the law provides much more. In general, FMLA entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave during any 12-month period for any of the following qualifying circumstances:
The Family and Medical Leave Act applies to all public agencies (state, local and federal employers and local education agencies, such as schools), and to private-sector employers who employ 50 or more persons in 20 or more workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year.
To be eligible for FMLA benefits, an employee must have worked for a covered employer for a total of 12 months and for at least 1,250 hours over the previous 12 months. Also, the private-sector employee must work at a location in the United States (or its territories or possessions) where at least 50 employees work for the covered employer within a 75-mile radius. If an employee had been receiving group health benefits at the time of taking FMLA leave, the employer must maintain those benefits at the same level during the FMLA leave. And, at the conclusion of the FMLA leave, the employee must be restored to the same job or an equivalent position.
The Nay-Sayers Were Wrong
Pro-business Republicans argued that the cost of implementing FMLA would exceed the benefits. This claim has been debunked by the data collected in several surveys by the U.S. Department of Labor. About 94 percent of covered work sites reported no costs or only minor costs related to FMLA compliance. The statute has been so beneficial for workers and employers that paid family leave legislation has been introduced in 28 states in the last two years. (See map.) FMLA has also enhanced morale and productivity at many work sites by removing employees worries about losing their jobs due to extended family leavea "win-win" situation for workers and employers.
Gaps in FMLA Coverage Remain
Surveys have shown that over 40 percent of private-sector workers are unable to take advantage of FMLA because they work for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Many part-time workers are not covered because they have not worked enough hours in the past 12 months to be eligible. And the law fails to address many important family responsibilities that require time away from the job, such as childhood immunizations or coping with domestic violence.
At the federal level, worker-friendly members of Congress continue to offer proposals to enhance FMLA, such as lowering the coverage threshold to 25 employees, expanding the qualifying circumstances for FMLA leave, and funding demonstration programs for partial replacement of lost wages. Several states have extended FMLA protections beyond the limits of the federal statute. Oregon, for example, covers workers in companies with 25 or more employees. The major public program currently addressing the challenge of unpaid leave is temporary disability insurance (TDI), which partially replaces lost wages for employees who are temporarily disabled for medical reasons, including pregnancy and childbirth. Five states (New York, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Hawaii) and Puerto Rico use TDI systems.
Repeal of "Baby UI" Rule
On December 4, 2002, the Bush administrations Labor Department proposed the repeal of the "Baby UI" rule, the federal regulations contained in 20 CFR 604, governing Birth and Adoption Unemployment Compensation (BAA-UC). Finalized during the last year of the Clinton administration, these regulations allow states to provide partial wage replacementin the form of unemployment compensation from the unemployment insurance (UI) fundfor parents taking approved leave or leaving their employment to care for newborn or newly adopted children. Although no states have finalized participation in the "Baby UI" experiment, several states have been considering this funding option, and repealing these regulations could derail these state initiatives. The Bush administration has also signaled its intention to revise the Family and Medical Leave Act regulations sometime this year.
Progress in California
On September 23, 2002, California Governor Gray Davis (D) signed legislation to allow employees to take partially paid family leave after July 1, 2004. California workers will be able to take up to six weeks to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child, or an ill family member, while continuing to receive 55 percent of their wages, up to a maximum of $728 per week. The new law covers all employers, regardless of the number of workers they employ. However, businesses with fewer than 50 employees are not obligated to hold a job for a worker who takes paid family leave. California will fund its law through payroll deductions going to the State Disability Insurance Fund (SDI). The average employee will pay an additional $2.25 per month or $27 per year to support the new program.
Other States Forging Ahead
Washington enacted its Family Care Act in March 2002. Beginning January 1, workers there may use sick leave, vacation, or personal time off to care for seriously ill family members. Oklahoma allows employees to use sick leave to care for family members; the state also established a state leave-sharing program to donate leave to employees who need family and medical leave. Montana and Minnesota finance at-home infant care for certain low-income parents. Five states are investigating options for providing paid family leave.
Momentum is building in the nationwide effort to expand and improve family and medical leave provisions. In the words of former Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, "The FMLA is helping Americans achieve the workable balance they have long sought."