Monday, February 4, 2008

Time to Expand, Not Gut, the Family and Medical Leave Act

I’ve been an activist since the 1960s. But it doesn’t take long to figure out how opponents of progressive legislation work. Although the names and specifics change, they have a limited stock of arguments and a predictable set of tactics.

First they warn: “If we pass [fill in the blank] bill, business will flee, the sky will fall, and you’ll hurt the very people you want to help.” Then, when our side’s successful, they try to get around the law by not telling workers about it, or finding ways to punish those who use it.

And as soon as possible, they try to undo it altogether.

February 5 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the signing into law of the Family and Medical Leave Act. We should be celebrating our work to make it available and affordable to many more people -- more than half the private sector workforce isn’t covered, for instance, and more than two million a year who are covered can’t take the time because it’s unpaid. The definition of family is really narrow. And the law doesn’t include routine illness.

But the opponents of family values at work just won’t give up. Now they’re trying to gut the FMLA through an end run of changing the regulations.

Twice in recent years I’ve testified before Congress on whether or not this law needs changing. Each time I sat at a table with some of the same opponents who said passing such a bill would ruin business. Now they were trying a different tack. FMLA? Great bill, this one used it when she had a new baby, that one when his mom had a heart attack. It was mainly fine, but needed a little tweaking.

And what would those tweaks be?

For starters, the opponents would like to clarify that serious illnesses don’t include chronic conditions. Really, they testified, someone gets a little headache or has a little asthma attack and think they can just stay home.

Those little headaches, in case you’re wondering, are known as migraines. My mother used to get them from time to time. They knocked her out. But as long as she had a dark room and some medication, she’d be up and at’em the following day.

And then there’s asthma. An attack can literally be life-threatening. Fortunately, most people will be okay, some after just a few hours, once they’re able to get treatment.

The opponents don’t stop here. They’re want to end to the terrible inconvenience of administering intermittent leave. Really, they say, if you have to take off, take the whole day, not just an hour or less.

Well, let’s say you’re going for chemotherapy, or physical therapy. You may need to be absent only for a short time. Surely your co-workers and employer will benefit if you can come back to work that day. Most of us would much prefer not to lose a whole day’s pay if we don’t have to.

Forcing people to take a bigger chunk of time off is really a way of saying, don’t take it at all.

Here’s what gets me: all these efforts to gut or whittle the FMLA make us struggle to hang on to what we already won, in the hopes that we’ll forget how meager that was in the first place. The rest of the world, including the developing world, has left us in the dust.

On this anniversary, let’s redouble our efforts to EXPAND the FMLA to what it should be: a way to make sure that no one has to risk a job to care for a loved one, or put loved ones at risk in order to keep a job.

1 comment:

Biaggio said...

You blew it with your Obama endorsement. No excuse for it whatsoever. You became what you criticize.