By MARY DEIBEL
Scripps Howard News Service
April 22, 2005
Her employer gave her time off as needed under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for Stephanie while Phillips brought home a paycheck and the health insurance that came with her inventory-control job with a Georgia soft-drink company.
Off and on until Stephanie's death earlier this year at age 18, family leave proved to be "a godsend right to the end," Phillips said. She also praises her bosses for understanding how important it is for workers "to do what's needed and come back to work with a clear mind. It makes you willing to do anything for your employer."
Now Phillips is fighting for the 12-year-old law that let her and 50 million other Americans take up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave for family emergencies.
The Family and Medical Leave Act was the first measure President Bill Clinton signed into law in1993 after making it a 1992 campaign issue against the first President Bush, who vetoed it twice. Now the younger Bush and his administration are considering changes long sought by business groups.
Proposals include limits on medical conditions covered by law and requirements that employees take a minimum of a half day for "intermittent leave" for doctor's appointments and the like that may only require an hour or two.
"Devastating" is how Debra Ness describes the proposed changes, including an intermittent-leave requirement that could make employees take off more time than they may need so they run out of annual family leave more quickly.
The proposals "would make it harder for people to take advantage of the law and to use the protection of the law," said Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonpartisan think tank spearheading a 200-group coalition fighting the proposed restrictions.
But business groups led by the National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Chamber of Commerce say changes are needed to help employers deal with workers who abuse the statute's protections to cover for their absenteeism or chronic tardiness.
Most troublesome, business groups say, are the law's vague definitions of "serious medical condition" and "intermittent leave," which can amount to 10 minutes or 10 days.
"After 12 years of experience, it is now clear that the medical-leave provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act have led to widespread employer confusion and employee abuse," said Michael Eastman, head of labor-law policy for the chamber. "It's about employers needing some tools to help manage potential abusers."
John Engler, the new National Association of Manufacturers' president and former Republican governor of Michigan, added that NAM members report that some provisions are "particularly onerous."
The Employment Policy Foundation, a business think tank, puts compliance costs at $21 billion last year, up from $4 billion in 2000, due to "a small but costly group of employees."
Elissa O'Brien, vice president of the human-services firm CranstonArc in Rhode Island, points to abuses in her own 350-employee work force, including the worker who submits medical certifications for up to six weeks' leave like clockwork each Christmastime.
But other employers call the price tag exaggerated. Herb Greenberg, president of Caliper, a New Jersey human-resources consulting firm with 200 workers, puts "our cost in pennies, and it's more than made up by having good employees who add to our bottom line."
A 2002 Supreme Court decision, Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, requires the U.S. Department of Labor to change a regulation governing how employers notify employees when the clock starts ticking on their 12-week leave.
But the Labor Department has been mum about how far beyond that correction it will go in rewriting the regulations. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao recently told Congress that no decision has been made.
Linda Meric of Denver, head of the grassroots advocacy group 9to5, said the real problem isn't that the law is subject to abuse, but that the law only covers employers with 50 or more workers and only their employees who worked at least 1,250 hours the last year, leaving 60 percent of the workforce uncovered.
"At the same time big-business groups are attempting to lessen workers' access to family leave, the greatest problem we've seen is that millions of workers aren't covered," Meric said. "That's what happened to Tamara Bravo," who was fired by a small Colorado landscaper when she tended to her son after he was struck down by a hit-and-run driver.
Still, more than 50 million Americans have taken leave under the law since 1993, according to a 2002 Labor Department survey, the most recent figures available. Fifty-two percent of them took leave because they were seriously ill themselves, 31 percent to care for a sick family member and the rest to care for a new child. Half who took time for reasons of illness missed 10 days work or less.