WASHINGTON — Despite resistance from business groups, the Democratic-led Congress appears to be growing sympathetic to the idea of providing workers with more time off to tend to their families.
Before leaving Washington for its August recess, the Senate approved a plan that would allow the relatives of wounded soldiers to take up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave to care for them. If approved by the full Congress, it would mark the first expansion of the landmark Family and Medical Leave Act since it took effect in August 1993.
That's just for starters. A Senate bill would provide up to eight weeks of paid leave for workers who need time off for the birth or adoption of children. More narrowly crafted bills pending in the House of Representatives and the Senate would provide eight weeks of paid parental leave for federal workers. Another Senate bill would require employers who have 15 or more workers to provide each of them with at least seven paid sick days to address their medical needs or the needs of their families.
Supporters say it's time to give struggling employees a break by expanding the law that allows them to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they're ill or must care for sick children or other family members. The measure applies to employers with 50 or more workers.
Opponents say that many employees are misusing the law and that expanding it would be too costly and disruptive to work schedules.
The issue is reverberating in the 2008 presidential race, with Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Barack Obama of Illinois and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut among those who are trumpeting expanded family leave.
A June report by the Department of Labor concluded that millions of American employees and their families had benefited from the law. In 2005 alone, up to 17 percent of the work force — 13 million workers — took leave under the federal law.
"There is broad consensus that family and medical leave is good for workers and their families, is in the public interest and is good workplace policy," the Labor Department says in the report, after gathering more than 15,000 comments as part of a national review of the law.
The report cites plenty of people who were happy to have the law on the books: a woman who had to take two months of leave after a dog mauled her daughter; a single mother with a chronic health condition who had to take time off when her 4-year-old broke a leg; and a brother and sister who took leave to help their mother deal with lung cancer.
But officials in Washington have been getting an earful from opposing camps. Many businesses have complaints.
Responding to a survey earlier this year, nearly two-thirds of human resources professionals said they'd experienced problems in determining when to grant leave for chronic health conditions. The National Association of Manufacturers said the law had become "the single largest source of uncontrolled absences and, thus, the single largest source of all the costs those absences create: missed deadlines, late shipments, lost business, temporary help and overworked staff."
Some employers reported getting hit particularly hard. Verizon said that 44 percent of the workers in its Florida network centers had medical certifications allowing them to take leave. The Postal Service reported that 18 percent of its 620,000 employees took leave last year. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit said employee absences rose from 1,965 workdays in 2003 to more than 6,100 workdays in 2006. Supervisors at the University of Minnesota said it was impossible to know on any given day whether employees would show up for work because they could notify their superiors of their unscheduled leave after they'd been absent.
In particular, companies complained that the law allows workers to wait until two days after absences to advise their employers of the need to take leave, making it hard for them to manage their operations. The June Labor report says disputes over such unscheduled leaves have become "the single most serious area of friction" between workers and their employers.
As the debate heats up, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that one of its top priorities this year will be to oppose efforts to broaden the law or to force companies to provide paid sick leave. The chamber says the law has led to "widespread employer confusion and employee abuse."
Given the popularity of family leave with most Americans, however, the issue is showing bipartisan appeal on Capitol Hill.
An unlikely duo — Dodd and Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska — joined to introduce the Family Leave Insurance Act of 2007, which would give eight weeks of paid leave to workers who need time off for the birth or adoption of children.
"As the father of six children, I deeply understand the challenges families face following childbirth, in times of sickness and when loved ones fall ill," Stevens said.
Dodd, who sponsored the 1993 law, estimated that 50 million Americans have taken leave under the original legislation. But he said the United States still lagged behind 163 other countries that guaranteed paid maternal leave and 45 countries that provided paid paternal leave.
Key points of the Family and Medical Leave Act:
— Employees are entitled to 12 weeks of leave for certain family and medical reasons during a 12-month period. Employees are eligible if they have worked for their employers for at least 12 months, have worked for at least 1,250 hours over the previous 12 months and work at locations where at least 50 employees are employed by the employers within 75 miles.
— The law requires only unpaid leave. However, it permits an employee to elect, or the employer to require the employee, to use accrued paid leave, such as vacation or sick leave, for some or all of the leave period.
— Pregnancy disability leave or maternity leave for the birth of a child would be considered qualifying leave for a serious health condition and may be counted in the 12 weeks of leave.
— An employee's spouse, children and parents are immediate family members for purposes of the law. The term "parent" doesn't include a parent "in-law." The terms son or daughter don't include individuals 18 or older unless they're "incapable of self-care" because of mental or physical disability.
— You don't have to provide medical records to your employer. The employer may, however, request that, for any leave taken because of a serious health condition, you provide medical certification confirming that a serious health condition exists.
— Employers with established policies regarding outside employment while on paid or unpaid leave may uniformly apply those policies to employees on leave. Otherwise, the employer may not restrict your activities.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor