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Mar 8, 201812:26 PMOpen Mic

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How your rights to family leave could change

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Imagine a routine day at work. You get a phone call that your child has been in an accident and leave immediately. The doctors tell you the injuries are serious and a full recovery will take some time.

You call in to work with the news: You’ll need to be out of the office for a while, possibly several months. Your boss, who had been sympathetic a moment ago, turns cold. If you don’t return to work in a few days, you’ll lose your job.

That was all legal until 25 years ago this month, when the Family and Medical Leave Act was passed. It is the single most important piece of legislation in the United States protecting the rights of workers to help their loved ones during a crisis.

But it’s not perfect either. Compared to some other Western countries, the FMLA, as it’s often called, does not extend the fullest possible protections, and many gaps in its coverage remain to be filled.

With the recent 25th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, here’s a look back — and a look ahead to where it could go next.

The first 25 years

President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law in February 1993 and it went into effect in August of that same year. Before then, the only federal law in the United States that had anything to do with family or medical leave was the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, or PDA. Even that law only required employers that offered temporary disability programs to cover pregnancy like they would a disability.

Under the FMLA, eligible employees may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from their covered employer (this includes both private and government employers) to take care of a close family member who has a serious health condition, for the birth or adoption of a child, or for the employee’s own serious health condition. The FMLA also guarantees that when the employee returns, they will get the same or equivalent job back.

Over the last 25 years, the statute itself has received only relatively minor amendments, although hundreds, if not thousands of federal court cases have changed how it applies to certain situations. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Labor (which enforces the FMLA) has issued many rules and regulations to further define how the FMLA applies to specific employers and employees.

The most notable change to the FMLA has been its application to military families. These changes came in 2008 and 2010 and now allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave from work to handle “qualifying exigencies” arising out of a family member’s military service, or up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a family member who suffered a serious injury while on military duty.

Qualifying exigencies do not refer to serious health conditions. Instead, they include things such as post-deployment activities, counseling, short-notice deployment, and military events (like an arrival ceremony for a spouse returning home from deployment).

Unfortunately, there haven’t been any other significant changes to the FMLA, although proposals have been made. Some include extending the FMLA to smaller employers, allowing leave for situations not involving a serious health condition, and expanding who is eligible for leave. One of the most promising areas of potential change to federal family leave legislation has to do with paid family leave.


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