Report: Family Leave Act works well

WASHINGTON — The Labor Department, after sifting through 15,000 comments on the 14-year-old Family and Medical Leave Act, says it's working well but causing problems for some industries that say too many employees are taking intermittent, unscheduled time off.

The report, to be made public today, concluded, "In the vast majority of cases, the FMLA is working as intended."

It has succeeded in giving the 76 million eligible workers leave for the birth or adoption of a child or to take care of family members with serious health conditions, it said.

The department said the comments, collected since last December from employers and employees as well as various interest groups, revealed an unanticipated theme, that people with chronic health conditions are taking unscheduled intermittent FMLA leave that some companies say is disruptive.

It said these complaints were prevalent among industries with time-sensitive operations, such as those in the transit, transportation, delivery, assembly line and public safety sectors.

"In some cases, the use of unscheduled intermittent leave appears to be causing a backlash by employers who are looking for every means possible ... to reduce absenteeism." it said.

Debra Ness, president of The National Partnership for Women and Families, a group that advocates workplace fairness, said the organization knows it is a challenge to manage employees with illnesses requiring unplanned absences. "But that is a challenge all employers must meet. It is simply a part of doing business."

She expressed concern that the department "will follow this report with regulations designed to roll back FMLA protections. There is simply no justification for doing so."

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., an author of the original bill, said he would review the report, but "time after time, research has shown that the Family and Medical Leave Act is a sound policy that benefits employees and employers alike."

Victoria Lipnic, assistant secretary of Labor for employment standards administration, said that while the intermittent leave issue is causing "considerable tension between employers and employees," the department is not taking sides on the issue. "We are not making recommendations," she said in an interview. "We are hoping to inform the discussions."

The 1993 act entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during a one-year period for the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a newborn or newly placed child, to care for a close relative with a serious health condition or when an employee cannot work due to a serious health condition. It generally covers employers with 50 or more employees.

The department estimates that between 8 percent and 17 percent of eligible workers took FMLA leave in 2005, and nearly one-quarter of those taking leave took at least some of it intermittently.

The report also found that both employers and employees were dissatisfied with the medical certification process. Workers didn't like the time and cost of visits to health care providers to obtain certificates. Employers, especially in cases of intermittent leave, were frustrated that the certificates did not provide meaningful guidance to worker attendance.

Lawmakers perennially offer bills to either tighten FMLA rules to deal with abuses or to expand the program.

Dodd has joined Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, this year in promoting a bill setting up an insurance fund to provide up to eight weeks of paid leave every year for those faced with child care and illness issues.

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