Twelve years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was signed into law. It was the first bill signed by President Clinton, as it had been repeatedly passed by Congress, but vetoed by Presidents Reagan and Bush. It's not perfect -- the leave is unpaid, which means that it's of limited use to the most vulnerable families, and it only covers about 60 percent of the workforce, because small companies are excluded -- but it's a lot better than nothing.
Today, there are widespread rumors that the Family and Medical Leave Act is under attack. While nothing official has been released, the rumors are that the Department of Labor is considering making regulatory changes that would severely undercut the protections of FMLA. There are two changes that are commonly mentioned:
- Limit the protection to illnesses that require more than 10 days of leave (up from the 3 in current regs). This would mean that if you had to miss 4 days of work because of surgery or a child's asthma flare-up, you could be fired. Those of us at the upper end of the income scale would probably still be ok, because we could "shop around" until we found a doctor who was willing to say we needed the full two weeks off, but those without such resources -- or who can't afford to be without a paycheck for that long -- would be screwed. This seems like a bad idea for employers too, as it would create a perverse incentive for people not to go back to work as soon as they were able.
- Require that employees take FMLA-protected leave no less than half a day at a time. This one would hurt anyone with an condition that requires ongoing care which doesn't take that much time. For example, prenatal care. During my pregnancies, I always tried to schedule my appointments for the beginning or end of the day, so as to minimize the amount of leave that I had to use. (This was both a courtesy to my boss, and personally necessary, because your accumulated leave is the only paid maternity leave you get as a federal employee.) If this rule were in place, an employer could have required me to take 4 hours of leave for each appointment. Someone with an even slightly less than routine pregnancy could easily burn through 2 or more weeks of her FMLA before the baby was even born.
If these changes worry you, please act now. If the Department of Labor gets a clear message that people care about family and medical leave, and will oppose the proposed changes, they may well back off before they start the formal rulemaking process.
- Write Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Her address is:
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20210
- Write your Senators and Representative. Even though the proposed changes are regulatory, not legislative, your elected officials can put pressure on the Department of Labor if they hear that this is a big deal to their constituents. While you're at it, you might ask them to cosponsor the Healthy Families Act, which would guarantee workers 7 days of paid sick leave.
- If you are a business owner who supports FMLA, your voice is especially needed. The Administration is going to claim that these changes are business-friendly. If you think that these changes are bad policy, if you think they'll encourage employees to take more leave than they need, if you've managed fine under the current system, please speak up. Write Chao, write your elected officials, but also write the Chamber of Commerce and similar organizations and tell them your story.
- Spread the word. If you have a blog, write about this. Tell your friends, your coworkers. Bring sample letters to your playgroup, your moms night out, your weekly basketball game. This issue is especially important for parents, but it affects everyone -- even if you don't have kids, you can get sick yourself, or have to care for a sick parent or other family member. You shouldn't lose your job as a result.
Update: The National Partnership now has an Action Alert available that you can use to send emails to Congress and the Department of Labor with a push of a button.