WASHINGTON -- Since its enactment three years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act has allowed employees leave to care for a newborn, a sick relative or for their own serious illnesses without placing a heavy burden on employers, according to a report released to Congress yesterday by a bipartisan commission.
The law, which guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, had come under fire before its passage from some businesses that said it amounted to an unneeded government intrusion that would cost them dearly in time and money. But since its enactment, criticism has been fairly muted.
The law assures workers that "if they have to take leave, they won't lose their jobs or their benefits," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who pushed for passage of the legislation. "The conclusions of this bipartisan report are a far cry from the concerns that were being voiced."
Under the law, companies with 50 or more employees must provide unpaid leave. Employees can apply to the 12 weeks any paid leave they have accrued.
The law was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton in February 1993, having survived two vetoes by President George Bush.
"Today, many more employers are providing family and medical leave policies through their compliance with the new law," said the report from the Commission on Family and Medical Leave, which was created by Congress to review the effects of the law.
For most companies, the report said, the law was easy to administer and cost little or no extra money.
Some previous opponents were still critical of the law yesterday, but none called for its repeal. Instead, some critics suggested modifications, arguing that provisions allowing the 12 weeks of leave to be taken in increments are too burdensome and that its definitions of what qualifies as illnesses are too vague.
Problems stem from the "confusing and vague definition of what constitutes a severe health condition," according to Deanna Gelak, director of congressional affairs with the Society for Human Resource Management, a management organization.
The commission, made up of Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well as labor and business interests, found that up to 3 million employees took leave under the act between January 1994 and June 1995.
Most employers, according to the report, revised their leave policies to comply, in most cases expanding the circumstances for which employees could take leave. The report did note that some companies have had trouble managing intermittent leave, which allows workers to spread out the time they need off.
The report recommends, among other things, that the Labor Department educate employees and employers about the law. It estimated, for example, that more than 40 percent of employees are unaware of their rights.
A lawsuit pending in federal court in Baltimore illustrates some misunderstandings. Kevin Knussman, a 20-year veteran of the Maryland State Police, said he was denied his request for six to eight weeks' leave under the federal law. He asserts that supervisors told him, incorrectly, that his leave would have to be unpaid even though Mr. Knussman had built up many weeks of paid leave.
Mr. Knussman had wanted time off starting in December 1994 to care for the baby he and his wife were expecting.
"It's pretty clear that most of the supervisors at the Maryland State Police did not understand what family and medical leave was," said Deborah Jeon, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is representing Mr. Knussman.
But Betty Stemley Sconion, an assistant state attorney general who represents the state police, said that Mr. Knussman misunderstood the leave policy and that no state police official told him his leave had to be unpaid.
Pub Date: 5/02/96