A few months after he took office, Bill Clinton did something unusual, for him -- he backed a piece family-A Horn, IVof pro-worker legislation, the Family and Medical Leave Act. The Act guarantees some workers up to12 weeks unpaid leave from work to tend to their families. 

Photo: ©Ansell Horn, Impact Visuals 

The limitations of the law were obvious from the beginning, and centered on that key word, "unpaid." (The words "12 weeks" weren't too spine-tingling either.) 


Now a report issued by the government-created Commission on Family and Medical Leave has confirmed the obvious: A lot of people can't afford to go for months without pay. In fact, the Commission found, workers aren't taking much advantage of the new law: Only 1.2 percent of workers went on an FMLA leave during the 18-month period the Commission studied. Many workers said they had wanted to go on leave but didn't. Of these, 64 percent said the reason was because they couldn't afford to. The people most likely to go without the leave they needed were hourly workers and African Americans.  

Even workers who did go on leave kept it short: The average length of leave taken was ten days. That allowed almost half the workers who went on FMLA leave to get full wage replacement while they were out. That is, they drew sick pay, vacation pay, or from a disability insurance plan -- stuff they had before law went into effect. 

A lot of workers didn't take FMLA leave because they aren't eligible for it. The law only covers workers who've been employed for over a year at a worksite with over 50 employees. That means that only 55 percent of all workers are covered by the FMLA -- and only 46.5 percent of private sector workers.


For all these reasons, it's no surprise that the FMLA hasn't been much of a hardship for employers. Most bosses admitted to the Commission that it wasn't that hard to administer FMLA, and upwards of 90 percent of them reported that implementing the FMLA cost them little or nothing. 


And yet, employer groups are now maneuvering to amend the FMLA to favor them even more. The Society for Human Resource Management is leading a coalition of businesses who want to amend the FMLA by tightening the Act's definition of "serious health condition" (presumably so that workers can't get away with taking unpaid leave for anything other than something really dire), and allowing employers to require that intermittent leave be taken in half-day increments. 

Needless to say, many employers are not enthusiastic about the baby-step improvement Clinton is now proposing for FMLA: to allow for three more days of leave per year for certain reasons. There are other extremely modest proposals for increasing FMLA being floated in Congress, including a measure to make the law apply to worksites with over 25 employees. Another bill would allow workers to take leave to engage in school or community activities. Some states are now moving to extend disability benefits to give workers at least partial coverage when they're out on leave.


We can't afford to turn our nose up at any small improvement in our work and family life. But sometimes it's good to put things in perspective. A quick survey of family leave provisions in other industrialized countries shows just how stingy U.S. politicians and employers are with us and our families. 

Austria provides workers with six weeks of job-protected, full-paid leave before childbirth, and nine weeks after childbirth (this benefit can apply to either parent, whichever is the caregiver). In addition, working mothers in Austria can take up to one year off after parental leave ends at Austria's regular unemployment insurance rate (which is much higher than in the U.S.). 

In France, workers get six weeks of job-protected, full-paid leave before childbirth, and ten weeks afterwards.Working mothers are entitled to a job-protected leave until their child is three years old.  

Germany guarantees workers a 14-week full-paid and job-protected parental leave as well as a 2-year job-protected leave after childbirth along with a modest, flat-rate cash benefit to all at-home parents, regardless of their prior employment status.  

In Finland, where all children under three are guaranteed a place in a subsidized childcare program, parents can get one month of paid, job-protected leave before childbirth, and a full year after childbirth.  

Sweden gives all families a universal tax-free child or family allowance for each child up to the age of 18. The allowance usually adds up to 5% of average earnings, per child. Working parents are entitled to paid and job-protected 15-month parental leave following childbirth, an unpaid but job-protected additional leave of three months, and the right to work a 6-hour day until their youngest child is eight. They can also take up to 60 days a year of paid sick leave if they need to care for an ill child, and are guaranteed the right to take time off to visit their child's school or childcare center. And then there's the five weeks minimum paid vacation per year -- that always helps.-- LMc 

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