The importance of family leave

Workers have been entitled to it for 20 years now, but the law could be better

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Two decades ago, Dan DeCesare would have faced a tough choice between his job and his ailing mother. But because of the Family and Medical Leave Act, he was able to balance his responsibilities during a critical period without jeopardizing his job.

The FMLA, signed into law by President Bill Clinton 20 years ago this month, guarantees workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for qualifying reasons without fear of losing their jobs or health insurance (if the company employs 50 people or more). Because of the provision, Mr. DeCesare, 43, of Scott, was able to stay home with his mother, Anita, after she had brain surgery in 2005.

"I took off one month and basically moved in with her until she improved," he said. "It was a godsend for me and for her."

Going unpaid was a financial setback, he said, "but at the time it wasn't that big a burden. I don't know if I'd be able to say the same today."

His comments are in line with a new report by the U.S. Department of Labor, which says the FMLA has had an overwhelmingly positive impact but that 40 percent of workers are not covered by it. Millions more can't afford to take the leave it guarantees.

Casey Swartz, 32, a mental health therapist from Swissvale, took off 12 weeks after her daughter was born. Her husband kept working, but the couple began saving as soon as they learned she was pregnant so they could pay the bills while she was out. "Saving in advance is a luxury a lot of families do not have," she said. "I'm glad we have something for families to use, but it has so many limitations."

Carl Malm, 24, of Ben Avon, signed up for family leave due to an on-and-off medical condition. "I was taking the time anyway, but after awhile I was facing penalties and possible termination," he said. "My supervisor suggested FMLA. It's made an unbelievable difference in my life. The financial hit is the one caveat."

Workers have used the FMLA more than 100 million times in the past 20 years. As of 2008, that's included military families caring for injured service members for up to 26 weeks.

Clearly, the law has been a big success as far as it goes. But that's not far enough, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, which wrote the language. The partnership is urging Congress to include more people and a paid-leave insurance program so that more families can afford to make use of the law.

"We intended the FMLA to be the first step on the road to a family friendly nation," said the group's president, Debra L. Ness, in a statement. "The law has been a huge success but it's time -- past time -- to take the next step."

The Labor Department study found that 16 percent of workers took FMLA leave within the previous year and that businesses have few problems implementing it. Women account for 56 percent of leave-takers, while usage among men has been steadily increasing.

Some 57 percent of leave-takers used it for their own illness; 22 percent for pregnancy, birth, adoption or foster care; and 19 percent for taking care of a sick parent, spouse or child.

Most leaves were short. Some 40 percent missed 10 days or less and 70 percent topped out at 40 days. Only women caring for a new child stayed out longer, averaging 58 days, while men averaged 20 days for child care.

Two-thirds got at least some pay while on leave, but no pay was provided to 54 percent of workers of middle and lower income, compared to 18 percent of higher income. Almost half of workers who needed leave but didn't take it said they couldn't afford it, and 64 percent of those were women.

Meanwhile, 90 percent of worksites covered by the FMLA reported that compliance has had a "positive effect" or "no noticeable effect" on employee productivity, absenteeism, career advancement, morale or profitability.

"This new study from the Department of Labor makes a compelling case to expand the law and adopt a paid-leave plan," Ms. Ness said, adding that Congress should revisit the FMLA's rules on employer-size and worker eligibility.

For example, if the law applied to work sites with 20 or more employees, an estimated 67 percent of workers would be covered -- up from 59 percent now. Lowering the hours-worked requirement to 15 hours hours a week from 24 would make 63 percent eligible.

The partnership also advocates expanding the definition of "family" to include parents-in-law, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, domestic partners or same-sex spouses, and to provide leave for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

Just as important, the partnership wants families to have some kind of short-term income to tide them over in a crisis. Paid family leave programs are working well in California and New Jersey, Ms. Ness said, and Congress should look at making such programs available nationally.

Given the fighting in Washington over deficits, debt ceilings, entitlements, health insurance reform and everything else with a price tag, it's hard to see how paid family leave could get off the ground. But expanding the reach of FMLA could perhaps, maybe, possibly be doable.

Or maybe not, but advocates know this much: The issue won't raise itself. Someone has to begin the conversation, and the FMLA's 20th anniversary is a good time to do it.

sallykalson

Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).


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