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FMLA at 20

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A few years back, I got pretty sick — sick enough where I was in the hospital getting tests and treatments and I wasn’t in any position to work. A couple days of missing work soon turned into a couple of weeks.

After talking to both my doctor and an HR rep, filing papers for FMLA was quickly on the agenda.

It was a good thing, too: What was originally thought to be a bad infection eventually was diagnosed as a chronic disease. It could happen all over again.

Though I had to worry about managing my health, I didn’t have to worry about losing my job because of it. Like many others, I’ve benefitted from the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — a law that this week marked its 20th anniversary. More than anything, it gave me reassurance.

Like many laws changing workplaces, many thought it would hurt American businesses — it would harm productivity and businesses and drain the economy, not to mention lead to abuse. But a new government report marking the anniversary says otherwise: FMLA is helping millions of workers cope with family hardships with little disruption to employers.

The law allows eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, to deal with either their own medical woes or those of a family member, without fear of losing their jobs. Most leaves are relatively short, with 40 percent of workers reporting they were away from work for 10 days or less, according to the survey. But nearly half of workers who said they needed leave didn’t take it because they said they could not afford unpaid leave.

Though the act has helped a lot of workers, not everyone is so lucky. Nearly half the workforce isn’t covered under the law, which applies only to companies with 50 or more employees and those working at least 24 hours per week. The definition of family in the law is also narrow — it can’t be used to care for a grandparent, for example, or for same-sex partners.

The other case, as mentioned, is the affordable part of the law (how come lack of affordability is always synonymous with health care?). For most, it’s simply not reasonable to take FMLA even if you are eligible to receive it.

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Finally, opponents of the law are calling for changes that could address some of these issues — and it’s about time.

There’s the argument for expanding the law to guarantee at least some paid leave — which most industrialized countries, sans the United States, are already doing. It’s never going to help anyone’s productivity or commitment to their workplace (not to mention their health) if they have to choose between their job and their family.

It’s nice to celebrate an anniversary of a law that’s helped a number of American workers. But as we know with any piece of legislation (especially when it comes to health care), just because it’s law doesn’t mean it doesn’t need some revision.

See also:

Getting a grip on health care

Workers delaying retirement to keep health benefits

Large employers: Unplanned intermittent leave hurts