On the 15-year anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act, news out of Washington could make you sick.
The act, which was signed into law Feb. 5, 1993, allows eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a serious illness, to care for a seriously ill family member or to care for a new child.
But lobbyists for the business sector have been looking to weaken the law. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other trade associations are urging the Bush administration to chip away at the law before the president leaves office.
“The next White House may be less hospitable to our position,” Randel Johnson, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the New York Times on Dec. 2.
The Family Medical Leave Act has helped more than 50 million workers. It has been a huge relief to them and their families to know their jobs would still be there upon their return from dealing with illness or the arrival of a child. They no longer have had to face the cruel choice of losing their jobs or not taking care of themselves or their families.
The Labor Department estimates that of those who availed themselves of the act, 52 percent did so because they were seriously ill, 31 percent took it to care for a sick family member and the rest to care for a new child. Half of those who took leave for reasons of illness missed only 10 days work or less.
Some workers take the leave all at once, while others use a few hours at a time to receive treatment for an ongoing condition, such as cancer.
Lobbyists, however, claim the intermittent leave is difficult to administer and increases costs to employers. One of their proposals would require employees to take a minimum of a half-day for intermittent leave for doctor’s appointments that may require only an hour or two.
Such a move could be devastating. It would force workers to take time off in larger blocks, thereby using up their leave more quickly than may be needed.
Some employers allege widespread abuse of the act. But such accusations are unfounded. If companies were serious about curbing alleged fraud, they could simply require workers to submit a physician’s signature, as many businesses already do.
Some companies argue that the Family Medical Leave Act leads to productivity loss. But more productivity would be lost if skilled employees had to quit their jobs to care for a loved one, and employers had to subsequently refill and retrain people for those positions. And if employees were forced to come to work while ill and infected others, workplace productivity and morale could suffer enormously.
But merely preserving the Family Medical Leave Act is not enough.
Today, the law covers only employers with 50 or more workers, leaving millions of working families without protection. And it doesn’t cover domestic partners (although some states have rightly extended medical leave rights to cover all families).
Congress and the next president must strengthen — not cripple — the Family Medical Leave Act. After 15 years, it has proven to be a lifeline to American workers and their families.
Sanhita SinhaRoy is managing editor of the Chicago-based In These Times magazine (www.inthesetimes.com) and former editor of the Progressive Media Project. She can be reached at email@example.com.