WASHINGTON – The Labor Department on Thursday announced final revisions in the Family and Medical Leave Act, including new rules defining how families of wounded service members will be able to take unpaid leave to care for them.
While the addition of military families to the landmark law received positive reviews, the Labor Department's other revisions to the Act caused concern among labor and employee advocates.
The AFL-CIO's Cecelie Counts said the new regulations dealing with military families were "fair" but called the rest a "rather stingy reading of the law."
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said letting military families use the FMLA was necessary "to help military families balance work and family." But the "other changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act look like they will, on balance, benefit employers at the expense of workers," said Woolsey, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee.
The new regulations will be published Monday in the Federal Register and go into effect Jan. 16. Changes include:
• Allowing employers to require "fitness-for-duty" evaluations for workers who took FMLA time and are returning to jobs that could endanger themselves or others.
• Allowing businesses to exclude from perfect attendance awards employees who took FMLA time.
• Stopping employers from charging FMLA time to employees who come back to work but can only do "light" duty.
• Prohibiting an employee's direct supervisor from getting an employee's medical information when a medical certification is needed under FMLA.
• Forcing workers to tell employers in advance when they want FMLA time. Current regulations allow employees to tell employers up to two days after not showing up for work that they are using FMLA. Employees will now have to follow their employer's regular rules for informing them about missing work "absent unusual circumstances."
The new regulations will make it "more difficult for people to use leave when they need it," said Jocelyn Frye, lawyer for the National Partnership for Women and Families.
The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act grants eligible workers up to a total of 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for such things as caring for a newborn or a sick family member, or because the employee has a serious health condition. It generally covers employers with 50 or more employees.
Seven million of the 77.1 million FMLA-eligible people took leave in 2005, the latest year for which data is available.
President-elect Barack Obama proposed expanding the Act during his campaign, including expanding coverage to companies that have 25 or more employees and allowing leave time for elder care, domestic violence and for children's educational activities.
Assistant Labor Secretary Victoria A. Lipnic would not talk about Obama's plans on Thursday, but said, "I think we have now provided a much firmer foundation for whatever the next chapter is going to be."
The new regulations define for the first time how the families of military can use the FMLA.
Congress voted last year to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to include six months of leave for military families when a service member gets hurt. Unlike nonmilitary families, in which only spouses, children and parents can take FMLA time, grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins will be able to use unpaid leave time, officials said.
Lawmakers also allowed family members of National Guard and Reserve personnel called up to active duty or deployment to use unpaid leave time for "any qualifying exigency," which under the new regulations can include childcare and school activities, post-deployment activities and military events.
The military family leave has been in effect since President George W. Bush signed it into law at the beginning of this year. Lipnic estimated that an additional 139,000 people per year will take FMLA time because of the military regulations.