Improving the Family and Medical Leave Act

By February 5, 2008Human Resources

The 15th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act is sparking a bit a reasoned re-evaluation of the law, which is popular and certainly faces no effort to roll back its key provisions: unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks for take care of “serious medical conditions” by the employee or a close family member, as well as for birth or adoption of a child.

But the FMLA is not without flaw and recent clarifications and guidance issued by the Department of Labor will go a long way in making the law more effective. The Wall Street Journal had a very good summary of the key issues today in its editorial, “Fixing Family Leave.”

[Secretary] Elaine Chao’s Labor Department last month issued rules to clear up ambiguities in the law that were being exploited. Take something called “unscheduled intermittent leave.” Under current rules, an employee with a medical condition can simply fail to show up for two days before claiming leave. And since leave can be taken a few minutes at a time, employees can show up late, leave early, or disappear for an hour without notice. This is an invitation for misuse, especially at time-sensitive businesses (say, emergency first response or assembly lines) and many employers have lost control of their workforce. Under the proposed changes, employees would generally have to call in to request leave before taking it, which seems fair.

Labor’s proposals would also clear up loose requirements for certifying what qualifies as a “serious” medical condition. Under current rules, workers can get an open-ended doctor’s certificate for a condition — asthma, migraines, whatever — that allows them leave at any point. Under the new rules, companies can require employees to renew that certificate every year.

These points reinforce the NAM’s statement issued today to mark the law’s anniversary, a release that noted the widespread family and medical leave benefits offered by manufacturers.

  • The FMLA was never intended to turn full-time jobs into part-time jobs. It was never intended to allow employees to take sporadic leave without any notification to employers. It was never intended to unfairly burden colleagues forced to cover the unpredictable absences of their co-workers.
  • We can restore the balance intended by Congress between employers’ needs for employees, and employees’ need for time to attend to important family and medical issues. Employees will be able to take time off for the birth or adoption of a child, to take care of a family member with a serious illness, or seek treatment themselves when seriously ill.
  • The Department of Labor’s FMLA page is here.

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