Commentary | Wages Incomes and Wealth

Family and Medical Leave Act under assault: New restrictions, narrower definition of ‘serious illness’ pushed by business groups

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Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.

[THIS OP-ED ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL  ON AUGUST 4, 2005.]

Family and Medical Leave Act under assault

New restrictions, narrower definition of ‘serious illness’ pushed by business groups

By Ross Eisenbrey

If you’re a working parent who sometimes takes time off to care for a sick child (or spouse or parent), then you should be concerned about some behind-the-scenes maneuvering in Washington.

Big Business is lobbying the Bush administration to weaken the Family and Medical Leave Act, and it’s uncertain whether the Labor Department will live up to its family-friendly rhetoric or cave in to President Bush’s corporate allies.

Since the FMLA was enacted and signed into law 13 years ago, it has helped more than 50 million Americans balance the demands of work and family. The law gives employees of large and mid-sized companies and all levels of government the right to take unpaid leaves for the birth or adoption of a child or if the employee, her children, her spouse, or her parents have a serious medical illness. Thanks to FMLA, most employees know they will be able to return to their jobs at the same pay and benefits and that their health coverage will be
maintained.

The law is particularly important because so few employers provide paid sick leave. In fact, a recent study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (which analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) reveals that 59 million American workers do not have a single day of paid sick leave and 86 million do not have any paid sick days that can be used to care for a child.

Without the FMLA, these workers could be fired for getting sick and taking time off from work — or for staying home to care for ailing or injured children, parents or spouses.

Though American companies have had few problems with unpaid family and medical leaves, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says its top labor law priority this year is weakening FMLA’s protections in two ways.

First, the corporate lobbyists want a narrower definition of serious illness, to make it harder for parents to take leave to care for children with illnesses that keep them out of school and under a doctor’s care for less than five days. The business groups think employers should be able to fire a mother who stays home for three or four days when her child gets the chickenpox or has surgery — but not for five days, apparently.

Second, they want new restrictions on the use of intermittent leave. The Chamber of Commerce contends that it encourages abuse to allow employees to take leave in amounts less than four hours at a time. Even if the employee needs just an hour to visit the doctor before coming to work at 9:30 a.m., they want to force the employee to take four hours of unpaid time.

At first glance, it seems strange for businesses to make employees be absent longer than they need to be and, at second glance — it still seems strange. But there is method in the meanness. By forcing employees to lose four hours of pay, the business lobbyists hope to discourage them from using FMLA leave at all. As disability groups point out, the workers most likely to be hurt will be those with chronic conditions who use intermittent leave most frequently.

Because FMLA is so popular, the Chamber of Commerce isn’t asking Congress to amend the law; instead, the chamber is lobbying the Labor Department to weaken the regulations implementing it.

Prompted by business groups, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing in June to persuade Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to give in to the corporate demands.

But the hearing might have backfired. The strongest testimony came from a businesswoman, parents, employees and a physician, all of whom said the law should be expanded, not weakened. They urged broader FMLA coverage and paid family leave, as well as minimum sick leave with pay for the millions who currently have none at all.

Strengthening family and medical leave in these ways would require congressional action and the president’s signature, neither of which is likely in the near future. On the other hand, if Labor Secretary Chao weakens the
regulations, she will arouse the ire of tens of millions of working parents, many of whom probably support President Bush because of his “pro-family” rhetoric.

Let’s hope Chao lives up to that family-friendly rhetoric, instead of caving in to the administration’s big business campaign contributors.

Ross Eisenbrey is vice president and policy director of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

[ POSTED TO VIEWPOINTS ON AUGUST 10, 2005 ]


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