Family and medical leave: pluses and minuses

By Max Cacas

The Labor Department is out with new changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), including new definitions of how families of wounded service members can take unpaid leave to care for them. While military families applaud the changes, lawmakers are questioning other changes that they say will hurt civilian workers. And at least one Congresswoman is vowing to work to overturn the Bush Administration decisions.

The changes in FMLA do not directly affect federal workers, because leave for feds is regulated by the Office of Personnel Management.

The new FMLA rules, which were posted yesterday in the Federal Register, go into effect January 16th, and include:

  • Allowing employers to require “fitness-for-duty” evaluations for workers who took FMLA time and are returning to jobs that could endanger themselves or others.
  • Allowing businesses to exclude from perfect attendance awards employees who took FMLA time.
  • Stopping employers from charging FMLA time to employees who come back to work but can only do “light” duty.
  • Prohibiting an employee’s direct supervisor from getting an employee’s medical information when a medical certification is needed under FMLA.
  • Forcing workers to tell employers in advance when they want FMLA time. Current regulations allow employees to tell employers up to two days after not showing up for work that they are using FMLA. Employees will now have to follow their employer’s regular rules for informing them about missing work “absent unusual circumstances.”

With both the House and Senate returning to Washington for the “lame duck” post-election session this week, several lawmakers are expressing their displeasure with the new leave rules.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, (D-Calif.), a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, said letting military families use the FMLA was necessary “to help military families balance work and family.” But she adds that, “other changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act look like they will, on balance, benefit employers at the expense of workers,”.

Woolsey’s colleague, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D.-NY) says “This effort to undermine the Family Medical Leave Act shows that when it comes to family values, the current administration is all talk.”

In a statement released by her office, Maloney added, “A serious economic downturn is the worst time to ask workers to choose between their jobs and their families or health. In the next Congress, I will be working with President-elect Obama not only to fix these misguided regulations, but to expand family and medical leave to Americans who need it.”

Maloney is an outspoken advocate on behalf of family and medical leave issues, and is the principal author of the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act. It would allow both federal employees and congressional staff to take four weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child.

The measure was approved by a wide majority in the House this past summer, and is currently pending in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Supporters had hoped to gain passage before Congress recessed for the elections. but were unable to bring it to the floor for a vote.

The Bush White House is opposed to the bill, and has threatened a veto.

The bill could still be brought up for consideration in the remaining weeks of the 110th Congress, and go to the Senate and House floors as an amendment to either a proposed second economic stimulus package, or a bailout for the Big Three American automakers. So far, there’s been no indication from the Senate panel that this, in fact, would be the case.

Associated Press Writer Jesse J. Holland contributed to this report.

On the Web:
FederalNewsRadio – Big win for family leave backers
Labor Dept. – FMLA news release (11/18/2008)

(Copyright 2008 by and The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)