Back when it passed in 1993, the Family and Medical Leave Act was sold as a compassionate yet measured response to the needs of employees, offering up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave every year in case of a child’s birth, an adoption, the need to take care of a sick family member and, finally, as backstop relief if employees’ sick leave ran out while they suffered a serious or chronic illness. Mostly we heard about new moms getting time to bond with their babies, or adult children caring for their dying parents. And who could object to that?
Few, really, and employers are parents and children, too, who understand the importance of spending time with their families as much as anyone. Still, these government programs invariably create perverse incentives, as a Department of Labor report released last month proves.
The Hudson Institute’s Diana Furchtgott-Roth cites the study to report that the medical part of the law is being abused. All you need is a doctor’s certificate of a chronic illness for you or a family member — just once, just one certificate — and you enjoy great freedom to come and go from work whenever you want. And you don’t have to tell the boss for up to two days AFTER your absence you were taking leave under the FMLA.
From Furchtgott-Roth’s “Sick of Working”:
In Staten Island, 17% of bus operators were approved for FMLA leave in 2006. Brooklyn and the Bronx did better, with 8% and 9% of bus operators respectively. It is highly unlikely that bus operators and their families within the same city have such disparate, poor medical histories. This experience is typical of other large cities, such as Philadelphia.
Waiting for buses is inconvenient, but unanswered 911 calls are downright dangerous. A counselor to Mayor Bloomberg, Anthony Crowell, wrote that the police communication technicians who handle New York’s 911 Emergency Call Center have unusually high rates of FMLA leave. In February 2007, 32% of call-takers were approved for FMLA leave. FMLA accounted for 27% of all medical leave taken in 2006.
Workers wind up covering for people who just don’t feel like coming to the job today; employers will tell you that a lot of these “excused” absences occur on Mondays or around holidays.
It’s not callous to point out these realities. It’s…realistic, and responsible. Abuse of the FMLA is seriously disrupting many businesses, putting a drag on the economy, and adding demands on more conscientious employees. In response to the report, the NAM said (in this news release) that the Department of Labor needs to ensure that the Act is administered as Congress intended: “Employers seek clarity in the rules they follow so that workers who require medical treatment can receive it and return to the job healthy and ready to work.”
You can tell it’s a sensitive topic, and employers are leery of being condemned for being hard-hearted. But the fact is, there are far too many cases where the law is being abused. Furchtgott-Roth notes that Verizon reported that 44 percent of its workers in its Florida network centers and 42 percent in its business solutions group had FMLA certificates. That’s a lot of people who can call in sick whenever they want, with no consequences.
Let’s fix this thing.
UPDATE (10 a.m.): Meanwhile, New Jersey considers creating PAID family leave. Some differences from the federal program: Beneficiaries would be paid through the state’s Temporary Disability Insurance Fund; there’s no exemption for small employers; part-time employees would be eligible. The New Jersey State Motto: Making Perverse Incentives Pay.
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