A Headache for Workers

By Goldstein, Dana | The American Prospect, April 2008 | Go to article overview

A Headache for Workers


Goldstein, Dana, The American Prospect


AS A LIFELONG MIGRAINE SUFFERER, I'M USED TO hearing comments denigrating the seriousness of the condition, as if the debilitating, chronic headaches endured by 28 million Americans (most of us women) were merely the result of hypochondria, or an excuse to skip an awkward social engagement. But I never thought I'd hear those migraine myths perpetuated in the halls of Congress.

That's what happened in February when the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions met to consider the Department of Labor's proposed changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was the first law President Bill Clinton signed after taking office in 1993. Thanks to the FMLA, many Americans have the right to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work after the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a seriously ill family member, or to deal with their own chronic health problems--such as migraines.

As the clock runs down on George W. Bush's presidency and federal agencies scramble to enact pro-business policies, the Department of Labor (DOL) is doing its part by trying to weaken the FMLA. The DOL has seized upon a small number of employers' complaints about what is called "unscheduled, intermittent leave," which 60 million Americans have taken advantage of over the past 15 years. Under proposed new regulations, it would be more difficult for sick workers to take leave because they would be required to obtain a new doctor's certification of a chronic condition every year, even if they suffer from a lifelong illness such as diabetes or migraines. Such a change would be more than inconvenient; it discriminates against the 47 million Americans without health insurance, who pay out of pocket for every visit to a doctor's office.

Even more ridiculously, the DOL wants to require employees to request unscheduled, intermittent leave two days in advance. As Sen. Chris Dodd, one of the original co-sponsors of the FMLA, said at the Senate committee hearing in February, "Medical emergencies aren't planned in advance." I, for one, certainly can't predict on Monday that I'll get a migraine on Wednesday.

In its crusade against sick leave, the DOL is ignoring the opinions of the very employers this policy is no doubt intended to benefit: 80 percent to 90 percent of employers in the DOL's own survey said the FMLA had a neutral or positive effect on productivity, profitability, and employee morale. …

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