February 6, 2013 — Worker advocacy groups are pushing legislation to ensure that small-business employees have access to family and medical leave and to provide paid leave for all workers, the AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports (Hananel, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2/5).
Under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, eligible employees are allowed up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave annually for a serious illness or to care for a new child or sick family member (Wise, McClatchy/Sacramento Bee, 2/6). On Tuesday, the Department of Labor finalized new rules that expand FMLA to airline personnel and flight crews and allow military family members to take job-protected leave to care for wounded service members or address issues when a service member is deployed on short notice (AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2/5).
However, FMLA does not cover workers at companies with fewer than 50 employees, or anyone who works fewer than 24 hours weekly. The law also does not require employers to pay workers while they're on leave (McClatchy/Sacramento Bee, 2/6).
Dept. of Labor Report
Workers have taken leave under FMLA more than 100 million times, of which about 57% was related to a worker's own illness, 22% was for pregnancy or caring for a child, and 19% was to care for ill relatives, according to a DOL report released to coincide with the law's 20th anniversary this week (AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2/5).
The report noted that 40% of U.S. workers are ineligible for FMLA's protections because they are employed at companies with fewer than 50 employees or they work under 24 hours weekly. Further, many workers who take leave are unable to do so for an extended period because of financial concerns. In the past year, 40% of workers took leave for 10 days or fewer, and more than 70% returned to work within 40 days, the report said (McClatchy/Sacramento Bee, 2/6).
Additionally, 85% of employers covered by the law reported that compliance was "somewhat easy," "very easy," or had "no noticeable effect."
Advocates Urge Expansion
The National Partnership for Women & Families and other groups are urging legislative action to extend the reach of FMLA (AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2/5). The National Partnership, which authored the original legislation, is drafting a proposal that would expand job-protected leave to more workers. An alternative proposal would create a national paid family and medical leave insurance program.
Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs for the National Partnership, said that the original law was "always intended to be the first step and not the last." She said the latest study confirms that the law is "working very well" for eligible workers, yet many who aren't covered or do not receive paid leave "often have no choice but to go back to work before they're ready."
Prospects for Legislation
National legislation to expand leave policies could face an "uphill battle" in Congress, according to McClatchy/Bee. Some business groups oppose any expansion of FMLA, which they say would burden companies. However, state-level paid family-leave insurance programs already have been adopted in California and New Jersey (McClatchy/Sacramento Bee, 2/6). At a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary on Tuesday, Acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris said, "Workers should not have to choose between the job they need and the family members they love and who need their care." President Clinton, who signed the measure into law, also joined the ceremony.
President Obama in a statement on Tuesday called FMLA "a groundbreaking step forward for America's workers and families" but said "there is still more work to do." He asked that "as we mark this anniversary, let us also recommit ourselves to the values that inspired the law and redouble our efforts on behalf of fairer workplaces and healthier, more secure families" (AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2/5).