Family Medical Leave Act

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The Family Medical Leave Act was instituted 15 years ago under the Clinton administration. The FMLA states that:

Covered employers must grant an eligible employee up to a total of 12 workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for one or more of the following reasons:

  • for the birth and care of the newborn child of the employee;
  • for placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care;
  • to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
  • to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.

Recently the FMLA has been amended to allow families of military personnel to take up to 26 weeks to care for injured and ill members of the armed forces.

Reference article here and fact sheet here.

At the time of the FMLA’s enactment, I had been working for the postal service for nine years. All around me I had seen co-workers being disciplined when they took off work to care for a family member, or even to recover from serious health conditions themselves, such as heart attacks or cancer. Even using one’s personal sick leave could result in “time on the street” (leave without pay), which is essentially all that the FMLA provides but without the threat of termination.

There were many things I didn’t like about working for the postal service, but I will give it credit for its compliance to the FMLA. (However, I don’t know how good a job it would have done if it hadn’t been for the unions breathing down its neck.) I know that there were supervisors who thought that the FMLA was just a way for employees to get out of work without repercussions and those supervisors tended to interpret it rigidly. There were others who were a bit more generous in their rulings. A child didn’t have to have something like leukemia, for instance; he or she could be ill with the flu. But however it was interpreted and applied, it made all the difference for people who found themselves in situations covered by the Act.

I myself would probably have lost my job years before I finally had to quit for health reasons. My condition is chronic and makes it hard for me to function consistently in a forty-hour-a-week position. Every so often I would have to stay home for a day or two. Before the FMLA, three such occurrences could result in dismissal. This caused an incredible amount of stress for me and worsened my condition. But once the FMLA was enacted, the reduction in stress allowed my condition to stabilize for months at a time.

All most people need is a little break from their employers once in a while. This Act ensured that employers would give them one. Naturally, businesses as a whole were unhappy about the FMLA because of the loss of productivity and disruption to their work schedules. (For the most part, it didn’t need to cost them more money because they could use temps in the interim, who they usually paid less and didn’t have to supply with benefits.)

This Act is an especially critical legislation for women, since they are caretakers far more frequently than men are. But it is also beneficial for men: before the FMLA, men were rarely given parental leave when a new child came into their households.

The U.S. still lags far behind other developed countries in providing paid parental leave for men and women. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of resistance to the idea among business owners and those who don’t think that government has any right to interfere in such matters. Frankly, I don’t think the U.S. will grant paid parental leave any time in the near future, if ever. Big business has too much influence on our governmental processes for that to happen.

But then again, miracles can happen. The FMLA was one of them.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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