Labor's Voice for Change (47) June 25, 2009

After 16 Years, Let’s Make FMLA Meaningful;
California Offers 6 Weeks of Paid Family Leave

By Harry Kelber

When Congress approved the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993, labor leaders celebrated the event as an important victory. Employers with 50 or more workers were required to give each of them up to 12 weeks off to take care of a sick child, spouse or other family member. The trouble was that the family leave was without pay.

Many low- and modest-income workers cannot take advantage of FMLA because they can’t afford to be without a weekly paycheck for up to 12 weeks. But what should they do if someone in the family is seriously ill and requires their presence at home? It’s a dilemma that faces working people everywhere, when a child has been hurt in an accident, a spouse is recovering from surgery or an aging parent needs constant care. How are they and the family going to live while they go through this emergency?

To qualify for family leave is not a simple process. Employees must provide advance leave notice and medical certification. Taking of leave may be denied if requirements are not met. Employees must provide 30 days advance notice when the leave is “foreseeable.” An additional worry for workers is that by taking family leave, they will incur the employers’ anger, and they may be harassed or fired when they return to work, although this would be a violation of the law.

After 16 years, American workers still do not have paid family leave to deal with serious health problems. Finally, there’s a bill by Senator Edward Kennedy that would provide seven days of paid family leave to the FMLA law. Thus far, it has not received major attention from the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, whose leaders are presumably occupied with more pressing issues.

California Initiates Landmark Law for Paid Family Leave

Workers who participate in the California Disability Insurance Program are entitled to a maximum of six weeks of partial pay each year while taking time off from work to “care for a seriously ill parent, child, spouse or registered domestic partner” and “bond with a newborn baby, adopted or foster child.” (Both parents can be eligible for the benefit.)

Most workers will receive approximately 55 percent of their pre-taxed weekly wage, up to a maximum of $917 while on leave. The Paid Family Leave Program is administered by the State of California Employment Development Department, a state agency, not the employer.

European Workers Get Three Months of Paid Parental Leave

Parental leave for European workers will be increased from three months to four months and will apply to all employees, regardless of their contract, according to an agreement signed June 18 by the European Commission. The benefits of the new agreement apply to each parent. Parents on leave will continue to receive a salary.

“At the end of parental leave, workers shall have the right to return to the same job or, if that is not possible, to an equivalent or similar job, consistent with their employment contract or employment relationship,” reads the text of the agreement. Parents who have adopted a child are also eligible to benefit from parental leave under the new rules.

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As a candidate—thus far the only candidate—for a seat on the 43-member AFL-CIO Executive Council, I believe that our current top labor leaders have been too soft and complacent about speaking up for the rights of working people. That may be one reason why European workers have far better benefits than American workers.

If elected, I shall work to restore the AFL-CIO Education Department, so that union members can be better informed and more articulate on such issues as the need for adding a payment clause to the Family and Medical Leave Act.

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Article 48 of “Labor’s Voice for Change” will be posted on Tuesday, June 30.