Congress May Expand FMLA to Business’ Chagrin
While Congress and many states this year will consider expanding the federal Family and Medical Leave Act -- a 1993 law that requires employers to provide employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for serious illnesses or to care for a new baby or family member suffering an illness -- they will likely face opposition from business groups planning to "fight" the "flurry of proposals," the Albany Times-Union reports. About two-thirds of businesses offering family and medical leave reported that complying with the law has proven "very easy or somewhat easy," according to a study released last month by the U.S. Department of Labor's Commission on Family and Medical Leave. "We've already seen what the original Family and Medical Leave Act has been able to do," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said, adding, "It's just been a phenomenal success. As successful as this has been, we can build upon it." Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) have proposed legislation that would provide $400 million to states to establish paid or partially paid parental leave programs. In addition, Dodd's plan would expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to include businesses with 25 or more employees, which he argues would cover 71% of the work force. The current law applies to firms with at least 50 employees and covers about 57% of the work force. Daschle said that he considers Dodd's bill one of his "top 10 legislative goals" for the 107th Congress. President Bush has not announced a position on expanding family leave. His father, former President George Bush, vetoed the Family and Medical Leave Act twice, in June 1990 and September 1992.
Meanwhile, some state Legislatures may establish their own paid family leave programs. Some of the proposals pending include:
- Lawmakers in Texas, Arizona, Massachusetts, Nebraska and New Jersey have introduced legislation that would provide an average of $214 per week for up to 12 weeks for parental leave, using state unemployment funds, and Pennsylvania and Maryland may enact similar measures;
- In Washington state, lawmakers may pass legislation that would provide $250 a week for five weeks to employees taking family or medical leave, funded by a two-cent per hour payroll tax shared by employees and employers;
- Five states -- California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island -- already provide an average of 10 to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave through temporary state disability insurance.
However, employers, who bankroll state unemployment funds through payroll taxes, warn that the funds could "dry up in leaner times," adding that Congress "never intended" for businesses to "foot the bill." In addition, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already "press[ed]" newly confirmed Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to prevent states from "tapping" unemployment funds for parental leave, a move that would overturn a current rule issued by Clinton administration. Mike Bartlett, director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that using state funds for paid leave "jeopardizes the stability of the unemployment compensation system" and may cost as much as $30 billion a year -- but supporters of paid leave initiative call Bartlett's estimate "outlandish" (Holland, Albany Times-Union, 2/4).
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