Lawmakers Wary of Changes to Family and Medical Leave Law

The U.S. Department of Labor garnered harsh criticism from lawmakers on Wednesday during a hearing to discuss the department’s proposed changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act, legislation that requires employers to give workers unpaid time off in the event of medical emergencies.

During a panel held by the Senate’s Children and Families Subcommittee, lawmakers questioned the motivation and planning behind new provisions to the federal family and medical leave law that were proposed by the department earlier in the month.The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), enacted in 1993, allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year in the event of serious medical conditions or pregnancy, or to care for sick family members.

The new provisions would make it harder for workers to take leave for a serious health condition, which is currently defined as when an employee is incapacitated for a period of more than three days, with two or more treatments by a health care provider or a regimen of continuing treatment.

The Labor Department seeks to restrict the period in which the two aforementioned treatments can occur. Rather than have an indefinite timeline, employees would have 30 days to obtain the treatments from a health care specialist.

Subcommittee chairman and sponsor to the the original FMLA, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., criticized the reform as discouraging employees from applying for leave, saying that “first we have to protect that gains we’ve made.”

Another provision change would require workers to visit a health care provider at least twice a year in order to be seen as having a chronic condition, even for health problems like asthma or carpal tunnel syndrome that wouldn’t necessarily require consistent medical attention.

Dodd recounted the signing ceremony for the FMLA in front of the White House Rose Garden during the hearing, remembering Rep. Pat Schroeder, a Congresswoman from Colorado who was a strong supporter of the FMLA in the early 1990s and unable to attend the event.

“She should have been up on the stairs as the person who really created this idea. I’ve always regretted deeply that she wasn’t there that day,” said Dodd, noting that the FMLA withstood two vetoes before being signed into law.

Victoria Lipnic, assistant secretary for the Labor Department, defended the changes, saying that new court decisions on the law and other problems found by employers, workers, and health care specialists made the changes necessary.

However, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., questioned the motivation behind the new provisions, subtly asking why the department was deciding to propose such changes now without contemporary scientific information about FLMA problems, pointing out that a large survey on implementing FLMA hadn’t been conducted since 2000.

“You hadn’t done anything scientifically in eight years,” said Murray, noting that the new provisions were being proposed “incidentally, during the president’s last year.”

According to the Labor Department, approximately 7 million covered workers took FMLA leave in 2005.

Employees applying for leave under the FMLA must work for the same employer for at least year and contribute 1,250 work hours annually in order to be eligible. Companies that are required to adhere to leave stipulations under the FMLA are usually classified as having more than 50 employees.

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About the Author

Erin Rosa

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature.

Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state.

Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters.

She can be reached at erosa@coloradoindependent.com.

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