FMLA 20 years later: It's time to take it further

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By Joseph Houston
Special to THELAW.TV

It's been 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed his first bill, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), into law. With FMLA, the United States joined more than 150 other nations in guaranteeing workers time off to care for new babies or family members with serious health conditions. Clinton wrote in his autobiography, "Even after I left office, more people would mention it to me more than any other bill I signed."

Many Employees Don't Qualify

The Department of Labor (DOL) released its third FMLA survey earlier this year and highlighted a serious flaw: just under 60 percent of surveyed employees qualify for FMLA. The most obvious reason is employment in a business with fewer than 50 employees and therefore not subject to FMLA.

There are some strict qualifications to be able to take FMLA. To qualify, employees must:

  • Live within 75 miles of their worksite
  • Have completed 12 months of employment
  • Have completed at least 1,250 hours with their company over the past year

Events like pregnancy, illness, and injury aren't always foreseeable to employees starting new jobs. Many people question why FMLA should benefit long-term employees and not newer ones.

Are Employees Taking Enough Leave to Recover?

The DOL survey found that most employees who take FMLA leave are out for far less than the 12 weeks permitted. Fewer than 10 percent took more than 8 weeks. More than half took leave for less than 10 days.

This raises concerns about whether employees are taking enough time off to adequately recover from illness or injury. For example, surgical patients may require several days of recovery followed by physical therapy.

Areas for FMLA Expansion

FMLA was intended to be a "first step on the road to a family-friendly nation," Debra Nass of the National Partnership for Women and Families, which helped draft FMLA, said. Yet in 20 years, there has been virtually no expansion. Three areas stand out to include in an expanded FMLA:

  • Big business employees. Over 40 percent of American workers do not qualify for FMLA. While not all small businesses can participate in FMLA, it can be a huge benefit to bigger companies. Employers who can't afford to lose employees can turn to the nearly 17 million temporary workers in this country (DOL figure).
  • Strengthened job protections. The DOL survey found that 17 percent of employees decided not to use FMLA because they were afraid of losing their job.

The author, Joseph Houston, started his career in corporate law, but followed his passion to be an environmental lawyer and protect natural land from deforestation.