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Senator Seeks Expansion of FMLA

Although companies don’t advocate wiping FMLA off the books, many executives want to see some of its regulations modified. They say abuse of the system raises costs.

February 2, 2007
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The author of the law that allows U.S. workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family or medical needs is set to introduce a bill that would expand the scope of the original measure.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, announced Thursday, February 1, that he intends to offer a bill that will provide six weeks of paid leave for employees. Dodd, chairman of the children and families subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, wrote the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Since that bill became law in February 1993, 50 million people have taken time off work for the birth or adoption of a child or to care for themselves or a sick immediate family member. Under the FMLA, they are guaranteed that their job will be protected.

Dodd is concerned that many people don’t take advantage of FMLA because they can’t afford to abandon their paychecks. “I fail to see why that right should stop at a certain income,” he said at a Capitol Hill press conference.

The U.S. workplace hasn’t kept pace with the reality of dual-income families, Dodd says. When both parents work, they sometimes have to make wrenching decisions about caring for a sick family member or staying on the job.

“These are questions they go through contortions trying to deal with,” Dodd says.

Under Dodd’s proposal, employers, employees and the federal government would share the costs of the leave.

It’s not possible to estimate the price tag right now.

“I think a far better question is, what happens if we do nothing?” Dodd says. “What happens to families?”

It took Dodd seven years to guide the FMLA into law. The political terrain may be just as difficult this time. He benefits from having his party in charge of the Senate. That makes it likely the bill will get a hearing and be marked up.

Dodd still must persuade enough Republicans to support the measure to get at least 60 votes in the Senate. In the early 1990s, he succeeded in getting key conservatives on board. He believes he’s off to a good start this time because the first co-sponsor of the bill is Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Another constituency he’ll have to convince is the business community. Although companies don’t advocate wiping FMLA off the books, many executives want to see some of its regulations modified. They say abuse of the system raises costs.

Dodd argues that FMLA has been a boon to business because it has increased productivity, retention and employee engagement.

“I’m counting on some of our critics from 20 years ago standing up and saying that this works,” he said.

Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, also stresses the benefit for business.

“There’s money saved because of the high cost of turnover,” she said.

The Department of Labor is conducting an FMLA review. It is accepting comments from the public until February 16. Ness vowed not to let the agency undermine the law through regulatory changes.

At the Dodd press conference, Ness released a study by Jody Heymann of Harvard and McGill Universities, the 2007 Work, Family, and Equity Index: How Does the U.S. Measure Up? It shows that 168 countries around the world have paid maternity leave and 145 provide paid sick days. The United States does neither.

America’s paid leave policies are shameful,” Dodd said.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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