Coalition Wants FMLA Reform

Groups say workers abusing "serious illness" leave.

The work/life balance that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was suppose to help create is, well, out of balance, according to manufacturers and other business leaders.

A Bush administration signal that the 1993 legislation will be reviewed has heightened calls from business for reform and further definition. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the Society for Human Resource Management, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association have formed the National Coalition to Protect Family Leave. The coalition wants the Department of Labor to issue regulatory changes that would further define serious illnesses and reduce recording requirements.

FMLA, championed by former President Bill Clinton, requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees to care for a newborn or newly adopted child or themselves or other family members during a serious illness.

When the legislation passed, the business community predicted widespread abuse, lost productivity and increased labor costs. In reality, no widespread abuse has been documented, but according to Chris Tampio, director of employment policy for NAM, enough evidence of abuse exists to merit reform. "We do hear from the majority of our members that FMLA is a problem."

Members don't think changes to the family-care portion of FMLA are needed -- the abuses aren't there. "The problem seems to be with people who have a chronic illness and for instance, come in late every Monday morning. Because they are protected [under FMLA], you can't ask questions. It becomes a privacy issue."

Tampio relates two anecdotes from NAM members: In one case, an employee that claimed to have a serious physical illness was off 42 intermittent days in one year. When the company checked sign-in records at an employee gym it provides, the employee had visited the gym on more than half of his days off. In another case, employees became so frustrated with one worker's repeated absences that they drove to his home on one of his sick days to find him riding an all-terrain vehicle and doing farm chores.

Several worker-advocate groups see such cases as extremes and a smoke screen, with the coalition's true intent being a larger-scale rollback of the leave protections. They also are concerned about the coalition's push to reduce requirements that businesses track FMLA leave according to the smallest time unit used to measure pay. This is burdensome in some workplaces, Tampio says.

But groups such as the National Partnership for Women and Families remain skeptical. They counter that changing the tracking requirement would force employees to take more unpaid time than needed for things such as medical visits and that the redefinition of serious illness will disqualify millions of workers.

It's unclear when the Department of Labor will take action or what exactly it will do. One disadvantage both sides have is lack of data. Although studies have been done on the cost of FMLA, no one has definitive data on how many workers are using the protection as intended and how many are abusing it. So are there really enough duplicitous workers to merit a revision of FMLA rules? Even Tampio says it's hard to use the word "abuse" without statistical evidence. But, he says, "we are working on this because we are a member-driven organization, and our members see this as a problem."

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