Strengthen the Family Medical Leave Act

The administration plans to make it more difficult for workers to take time off.

Many students are part-time workers, transitioning often from job to job, and may not qualify to take family medical leave. Hopefully, the protection under the federal Family Medical Leave Act will still apply when we transition to full-time employment and need to care for our parents, our children or our own health.

Millions of Americans are not aware of the Bush administration’s proposed changes to the Family Medical Leave Act, and yet, the period for public comments at the U.S. Department of Labor will end Friday. Fifteen years ago, the federal act passed, allowing employees to take time off for a serious illness, without the threat of losing their jobs. Whether it is applied to an elderly parent, a child with special health care needs, or a pregnancy, the act encourages continued participation in the workforce by acknowledging difficult life circumstances.

Despite efforts to make it more accessible to all Americans, it is still unpaid and limited to those who can afford to go without work for six weeks. According to a 2000 Department of Labor study, 40 percent of nongovernmental employees are ineligible for family medical leave. The Bush administration plans to make it even more difficult for workers to take time off using the law.

Under the proposed changes, employers would gain the ability to directly contact medical providers, employees may be required to purchase additional medical certification forms from their doctor to verify their health condition and employers would be able to limit the amount of sick and vacation leave that employees could use during their unpaid leave.

These additional burdens will undermine health confidentiality rights and put greater strain on families during times of financial and psychological stress. The proposed changes relax the obligations of employers at a time when the Family Medical Leave Act needs to be strengthened, not weakened. Many students need to pay student loans monthly and six weeks without pay can be a long time. If participation in the workforce is a U.S. priority, then people must be allowed to work, even amid the realities of illness and an aging population.

Rebecca Seel is a University graduate student. Please send comments to [email protected]