Assessing the Family and Medical Leave Act-10 Years Later

By Gonyea, Judith G. | Aging Today, March/April 2003 | Go to article overview
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Assessing the Family and Medical Leave Act-10 Years Later

Gonyea, Judith G., Aging Today


The approach of the 10-year anniversary of the enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers an opportune time to evaluate the effects of this legislation, as well as proposed reforms. There was tremendous symbolism for many Americans in the fact that the FMLA was the first piece of legislation that newly elected President Bill Clinton signed into law. The law was viewed as a long-overdue acknowledgment of the work-family challenges facing contemporary families.

At the time of the FMLA's signing on Feb. 5, 1993, the United States was one of only two industrialized nations lacking such a federal policy. After an eight-year struggle in Congress-during which it was twice vetoed by the first President Bush-the bill that was signed into law represented compromise legislation. By the time of the FMLA'S passage, 32 states already had some form of family-leave policy, and many were stronger than the federal version. Now, a decade later, a key question is whether the politics that surrounded the passage of the federal FMLA were "much ado about a little" or "little ado about a lot"?

Emphasizing job security, the FMLA is gender neutral and intergenerational in its focus. Key employee rights under the statute are:

* The employer must offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a 12-month period for the birth, adoption or foster-care placement of a child; care of a spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition; or a serious health condition rendering the employee unable to work.

* The employee may take the leave intermittently or on a reduced schedule.

* The employer must continue the employee's health premiums on the same basis as prior to commencement of leave.

* The employee must be able to return to the same or an equivalent position.

To date, the effects of the FMLA have been described as modest for both employees and employers. The limited impact of the act can be attributed largely to compromises that were necessary to ensure its passage. The law's main limitations are that it has no requirement for paid leave; covers only employees who worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the prior 12 months; limits the duration of leave to 12 weeks; excludes small employers with less than 50 employees; restricts the need for leave to people with narrowly defined medical conditions; and confines coverage to immediate family members. To date research has shown that leave-taking by employees has been very limited. (See "Studies Show That Few Use FMLA" on page 6.)

Proposals to reform the FMLA are often tied to fundamental questions about the role of families, business and government. Congressional members on the political right continue to press for amendments that would restore earlier restrictive definitions of a "serious medical condition" and "intermittent leave" to the intent of the FMLA. Democratic members, arguing that government has a legitimate role in addressing employer-employee tensions, have offered proposals to extend the FMLA to parents-in-law, adult children and siblings. They would also include grandparents and domestic partners who have a serious health condition and employers with at least 25 workers. Some Democrats have also sought to increase flexibility in use of the statute, including granting hours off for medical appointments or school activities.

The most contentious area of proposed reform is around the issue of paid leave. In June 2000, President Clinton issued an executive order allowing states to experiment with using unemployment insurance (UI) funds to pay workers who take time off to care for a newborn or adopted child. To those in the field of aging, it is noteworthy that Clinton's proposal focused only on childcare and abandoned the original intergenerational focus of the FMLA. Although a number of states were beginning to examine this idea, in December 2002 the current Bush Administration chose to reverse this policy, withdrawing the "Baby UI" rule.

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