Family and Medical Leave Act
The Family and Medical Leave Act is the U.S. federal law that obliges employers to provide temporary leaves for the employees under specified circumstances. It was administered in 1993 by the United States Department of Labor to ensure that employed citizens have enough time to devote to their family needs, despite their full-time jobs (FMLA, 2006). Though the policy is reasonable from the social and financial standpoints, it has not been very effective over two decades since its enactment, primarily due to the limited number of covered employees and its low affordability.
Description of the Problem
The FMLA was designed to address the problem of improper balance between job security and family needs in the American society. The findings of the Congress indicated the rapid increase in the number of families with two employed parents or with single employed parent, which implied the lack of time for child care in an average family (FMLA, 2006). Traditionally, mothers hold more responsibility for childrearing in our society, and their increasing full-time employment was raising concerns among the policymakers. According to the Pew Research statistics, the year before the Act was adopted, about 73% of mothers were working outside of homes (Cohn, Livingston & Wang, 2014). By year 1999, they comprised 77% of all mothers, and it is only recently that this trend started to reverse, partially due to the rise in unemployment rates.
However, another aspect of the problem has come to attention over these years: about 40% of mothers are sole or main breadwinners in their households (Wang, Parker & Taylor, 2013). No matter how beneficial it may be from the equality perspective, the drastic change in gender roles has contributed to the problem of disturbed balance between workplace and family needs. Without a doubt, it is important for parents to spend enough time with their children, especially in the first years of their life or in case of illness. Deficiencies in childrearing may cause serious psychological and medical problems, which will be brought into adulthood.
Moreover, extremely busy work schedule can trigger conflicts between the spouses, which may, eventually, lead to divorce. Therefore, the balance between workplace and family needs is a significant social issue with numerous ramifications. The need to help employees with managing their family responsibilities was recognized by many governmental and private entities even before the emergence of federal legislation (Anderson, Coffey & Byerly, 2002). However, most private organizations wanted employees to set the workplace as a priority and even to work overtime, at the cost of their family life. For this reason, a formal policy was needed to oblige employers to provide more personal time for employees under both normal and unexpected circumstances.
Title and Description of Relevant Policy
The long title of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 is “An Act to grant family and temporary medical leave under certain circumstances” (FMLA, 2006). The Act entitles eligible employees in both private and public sector to take up to twelve administrative weeks of unpaid leave annually for the family and medical reasons. The qualifying reasons include: care for a new-born child, adoption or foster care, serious medical condition of one of the employee’s close family members, and serious medical condition of the employee. The employee has an option to substitute for the unpaid leave with his accumulated paid leaves. When the leave is foreseeable, the employee has to provide an advance notice to the employer.
Moreover, upon the employer’s request, the employee has to deliver a document certifying the reason for taking a leave. After the leave is over, the employer has to restore the employee either in his or her original position at the time of the commencement of the leave, or in an equivalent position with equal payment and other employment terms. It is unlawful for the employer to fire or discriminate against an employee because of his/her involvement in the FMLA procedure. In the case of violations on the part of the employer, the employee has the right to bring civil action against him or her.
Policy Goals and Objectives
The primary manifest goal of the FMLA is to help employees maintain balance between their occupational and family needs, thus promoting the stability and integrity of families as the core social institution (FMLA, 2006). In order to attain this goal, the particular objectives were set to defend the legitimate interests of the employees and to allow them to take reasonable leaves, without any risk of losing their position or employment benefits. Another obvious goal that the Act accomplishes is promoting equal employment opportunities for men and women by providing gender-neutral rights for the family and medical leaves. It can be assumed that the FMLA also pursues the latent goals of diminishing the divorce rate and encouraging families to adopt orphan children. Moreover, another concealed goal of the FMLA is to improve the population health by giving employees more time to attend to their serious medical conditions and to prevent contagion at workplace.
Policy Benefits and Services
The FMLA provides employees with the benefit of preservation of their position and employment terms, when they take an unpaid leave up to three months. The paid leave provided by existing laws may not be enough to cover unexpected situations, like serious medical conditions. For this reason, the FMLA grants employees the right to take additional leaves at their own cost in order to manage their family responsibilities. Therefore, the Act was designed to help employees overcome barriers related to work that prevent them from meeting their family needs. Moreover, the Act provides eligible employees with a large degree of choice: they may request being transferred to other position with reduced working schedule and equivalent benefits, or they may use the accrued paid leaves in place of FMLA unpaid leaves. Furthermore, employees receive enhanced protection from retaliation as they have the right to sue their employers for the violations of the Act.
The FMLA provisions are not universal. There are strict eligibility rules for both employees and employers (FMLA, 2006). To be eligible, employees must have completed at least twelve months of service for this particular employer. It pertains to full-time work, with the minimum of 1250 hours of service over the last year. Moreover, the employer must run a business with at least 50 employees within the radius of 75 miles (though some states have stipulated lower thresholds). This threshold does not apply to public and educational entities. Elected officials, as well as employees who need time to care for their elderly relatives and pets or to recover from a short-term illness, are not eligible to take FMLA leaves.
Service Delivery Systems
The benefits of the FMLA must be provided by employers upon the request of eligible employees. Employers in private organizations, public agencies, and schools are included. Private-sector employers must comply with the 50-employee threshold within the stipulated radius. In the context of FMLA, public agencies include all local, state and governmental entities, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act definition (§203). They have to implement the FMLA requirements without regard for the number of workers. Moreover, the FMLA pertains to all elementary and secondary schools in the country. The personnel threshold is also inapplicable to them.
The FMLA does not provide any financial benefits for employees, because it only grants the right for unpaid leave with the preservation of the employment position. Therefore, no particular sources of financing were needed to implement the Act. However, it created a certain financial pressure for the covered employers, because they have to find temporary substitutes for the period of the leave. Sometimes, hiring new workers for a short time may require additional costs, apart from the salary payment. It is notable that some states have gone further to expand the benefits provided by the FMLA. For example, the Paid Family Leave Law of California provides paid leaves for employees for family and medical reasons (Bartel, Baum, Rossin-Slater, Ruhm & Waldfogel, 2014). The employee payroll taxes are the exclusive source of financing for this law.
The FMLA is a viable policy aimed at reconciling the competing demands of professional and family life. This policy grants both substantive and proscriptive rights for employees to protect themselves from potential retaliation of the employer (Snorgrass, 2008). Thus, it has been able to meet the initially set goals. The policy is cost effective, because it requires minimal expenditures on the part of employers in public and private sectors. However, it can cause costly delays in the business processes, related to the need to find substitutes.
From the ethical standpoint, the policy can be described as controversial. On the one hand, it recognizes the importance of human relationships and manifests respect to human dignity, apart from his or her professional qualities. Although, as women are more likely to take family leaves, the Act has contributed to implicit discrimination of women during the recruitment process (Kessler, 2001). Nonetheless, it is of crucial importance that the Act gives employees more freedom of choice. The Act has been described by researchers as the best ethical framework for decision making in human resources, because it not only provides detailed guidelines, but also encourages further generosity on the part of the employer (King, 1999).
According to the most recent FMLA report of the U.S. Department of Labor (Simonetta, 2012), 91 per cent of covered employers believe that following the Act provides positive or no tangible effect on business operations. Still, it must be noted that the number of employers, who reported negative impact on productivity and profitability, has slightly risen as compared to year 2000. Another concern the report revealed was the limited number of eligible employees (only 57%). Even among those eligible employees, very small number of people can actually take advantage of the policy, because they may not be able to afford it.
According to the 2008 regulation (U.S. Department of Labor, 2008), they even cannot substitute unpaid leave with paid leave, unless they have provided the advance notice 30 days before the leave. As most qualifying family and medical situations are hard to foresee, this regulation renders the Act useless for many low- or middle-income employees. From the financial perspective, the viable alternative to the FMLA was created by policies that provide paid leaves for the same reasons. They have been successfully implemented in California and are being discussed in many other states (Bartel, Baum, Rossin-Slater, Ruhm & Waldfogel, 2014).
Their low cost-efficiency, however, can be the most serious obstacle on the way to its enactment. Apart from incorporating financial benefits, the policy can also be improved by taking further actions to prevent concealed discrimination of women. Thus, stronger enforcement mechanisms are needed to control employers and provide holistic protection for employees at all stages of work. Moreover, health care institutions need to be more careful in preventing the abuse of FMLA leaves.
Nowadays many people (both women and men) are forced to choose between their job security and family responsibilities. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 was intended to smoothen the conflict between these two major interests and give the workers more opportunities to attend to their personal life. The policy has been effective in the reduction of work-family conflicts, but it still has to be improved in order to promote family integrity and stability. Particularly, more opportunities for receiving paid leave should be provided, and the recruitment process has to be controlled more strictly to prevent discrimination.