The income umbrella (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

A reader recently complained that some of my articles can be a bit disjointed, or even difficult to understand.

Some of the fog in my articles has to do with human frailty. Some with insane Web news deadlines. If journalism, generally, is the “first rough draft of history,” Web news seems to be the “first audible grunt of journalism.”

But some of the fog comes from the source material.

If you ever read an article about the work of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) on the principles-based approach to regulation, and you find that the article is a bit, um, hard to understand: Just try to read the typical official document about the principles-based approach to insurance regulation. If you dare. But, before you start, please take your hypertension medication, and put away any valuables that could be damaged if your head explodes.

Sometimes, it seems as if insurance-related documents are hard to understand because actuarial analysis, accounting rules and insurance laws are simply complicated, abstract topics. The people who are interested in those topics are hardcore professionals, and they’re not accustomed to anyone outside their circles showing any serious interest in learning about the topics.

Sometimes, maybe insurance folks make documents complicated because the documents deal with scary topics. When actuaries are creating disability tables, it must be a lot more pleasant for the actuaries to think in terms of “seventh-year claim terminations” than in terms of “When will the claimants with cancer die?”

But, sometimes, I wonder if the people who write the reports and structure data are trying to fudge the numbers.

 

This thought came to mind yesterday as I was reading a collection of surveys that the U.S. Labor Department commissioned to observe the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The Labor Department seemed to be really eager to talk about how much employees and even employers like the FMLA. The consulting firm that prepared the survey report talks in the executive summary about how “only abut 3 percent” of FMLA-covered employees have taken “intermittent leave” (a single use of FMLA leave that involves two or more episodes of absence), and that only 15 percent of the covered worksites reporting that complying with the FMLA is somewhat or very difficult.

But what hit me is that reading the tables describing the employer survey responses is very hard to read, and that the data in the tables is even harder to describe.

Instead of, for example, reporting that X percent of the largest employers surveyed find the FMLA easy to administer and Y percent of the largest employers find the FMLA hard to administer, the table makers report that data by showing “Worksites’ abilities to deal with different types of leave, by coverage, weighted by employees at worksite.”

So, the table makers have even shown what percentage of the large employers think unscheduled leave is very difficult to administer. The table makers have shown that worksite managers representing 74 percent of all of the employees at all of the large employers sampled think unscheduled leave is very or somewhat difficult to administer. Got that? Isn’t that crystal clear?

Then, the report authors talk about the intermittent leave controversy.

The story is that some large employers, especially airlines and other large, unionized employers that have (let’s face it) a lot of miserable, angry employees, complain about employees using intermittent leave to, for example, get away with coming in 10 minutes late every day.

In Exhibit 8.5.3, the report authors present employers’ views on intermittent leave in a way that’s extremely hard for me to even put into words. The table shows, for example, that only 8.3 percent of the worksites said the FMLA hurts productivity. But… But! That 8.3 percent does not mean that only 8.3 percent of the large employers said the FMLA hurts productivity.

The table makers set that weird table up in such a way that the results mean that large employers representing 8.3 percent of all of the employees employed by all of the FMLA-covered employers that participated in the survey said intermittent leave hurts productivity.

The table also appears to show (after you look at it really hard, for a long time) that employers of about 23 percent of all the employees at all of the FMLA-covered employers in the survey sample think intermittent leave hurts productivity.

If the employers of, say, about 23 percent of all workers covered by the FMLA say intermittent leave is a problem, then, for a big chunk of the workforce, intermittent leave seems to be a problem.

Maybe the number of workers who abuse the provision is small, and maybe the number of employers affected is fairly small, but the affected employers are huge.

Why is that table so hard to read?

Maybe for the same reason that the report authors cite objections that critics of the FMLA have raised, and then knock down the objections.

The authors acknowledge, for example, that the Society for Human Resource Management says of the FMLA that “sometimes employees believe that it entitles them to take off from work for almost any reason.”

In reality, the FMLA report authors write, “very few covered firms report suspicion of FMLA misuse.”

Of intermittent leave, the authors write, “few worksites report negative impacts of intermittent leave.”

Could it be that the authors wrote the report the way they did because they want readers to come away with the message, “Few worksites report negative impacts of intermittent leave,” rather than, “A large percentage of jumbo employers report that intermittent leave is giving them headaches”?

Maybe the real message here is that Labor Department officials are seriously scared that employers can round up bipartisan support for putting new limits on use of intermittent FMLA leave.

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