Labor Department seeks public input on law for medical leave

Businesses are complaining that workers are abusing the privileges afforded by the law.
Are stomach flu or migraine headaches serious enough illnesses to grant workers extended time off?
Business groups, which say workers are gaming the landmark 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act by taking extended time off for relatively minor ailments such as a headache or a sore back, are seeking to tighten the standards in the measure. Their complaints helped prompt the Labor Department to seek public comment on the law.
The agency's call -- the first since President Clinton signed the measure -- has stoked fears among labor and women's groups that the Bush administration intends to make it more difficult for workers to take extended leaves for serious illnesses or family needs. That would particularly hurt the 47 percent of the private work force with no employer-paid sick leave, these groups say.
The act is "one of the most important advances for families in this nation's history," says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & amp; Families. Although she agreed that people with minor ailments aren't entitled to take leaves, business-backed changes could go too far, she said.
But managers say workers' abuse of the law causes scheduling nightmares, lost productivity and often escalates into costly lawsuits.
Here's the problem
Some employees invoke the law as "an all-purpose 'get out of jail free' card on attendance issues," said David Dabbs, a Richmond, Va.-based lawyer who represents employers.
Although many employers are reluctant to discuss their concerns on the record for fear they'll be labeled as unsympathetic to their employees, Labor Department officials say a review is in order.
"We've realized we need some fresh information and fresh thinking on the issues that have developed over nearly a dozen years since the regulations were implemented," Victoria Lipnic, assistant secretary for the agency's Employment Standards Administration, said.
The assessment could prompt the agency to issue new regulations -- or take no action.
The family leave law guarantees workers as many as 12 weeks of unpaid leave to treat and recover from serious medical conditions, to care for an ailing family member or bond with a new baby.
The law has been popular with workers, particularly to cover childbirth and adoption. The Labor Department estimates that 2.4 million Americans took advantage of the law in 2005. The federal law applies to companies with 50 or more employees within 75 miles of the work site -- in effect excluding "mom and pop" operations.
Although the state law provides stronger job protections for pregnant women and new parents, in other respects, the state and federal laws are comparable.
Thus, because employers are expected to comply with state and federal laws, revisions to the federal leave law, particularly concerning medical problems not related to pregnancy, could affect leave options, say lawyers who practice in this area.

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