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FMLA should be expanded, critics say
Published Monday, February 19, 2018
by Maria Magher, Correspondent

RALEIGH – When Jeannine Sato gave birth to her first baby in 2007, she was only able to stay home for six weeks – and that was through a combination of taking the sick time she had left and the vacation time she had accrued.

Though federal law offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new mothers through the Family Medical Leave Act, Sato couldn’t take that time because of a technicality in the law that says employers must offer it if they have at least 50 employees within a 100-mile radius. Well, Sato’s employer had carefully selected its locations so that its employees were stretched farther apart. The company had far more than 50 employees, but, Sato says, “I was within about five miles of being able to spend time with my baby.”

“It was a very eye-opening experience for me. I thought, ‘Geez, I’m a married educated woman with a professional position,’” said Sato, who was working at a nonprofit. “I was expecting that they would at least honor the family friendly benefits they spouted in the handbook.”

But they did not. So Sato left the position as soon as she could find another job. She went to work for a nonprofit that helped new parents, and when she had her second baby, she got 12 weeks off, which she said was “like night and day” in terms of stress relief.”

Through her job, she said, “I saw firsthand a lot of women who literally would sometimes have a few weeks or even days off because they could not afford any unpaid time off or risk losing their job. Women are put in a position of caring for themselves or their newborn baby and putting food on the table, and that seems archaic.”

Sato’s experience is not uncommon, nor are the experiences of the women she worked with in her position who were not able to take time off after birth. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the passage of the FMLA, many policymakers and advocates are discussing how the law can be expanded to protect more workers and give them the time they need to recover after childbirth or a sickness, or to care for sick relatives.

From unpaid to paid leave

The FMLA offers 12 weeks of unpaid time off per year, and employers are required to maintain employee benefits and to offer employees a job when they return from leave. It does not have to be the same job. In addition to childbirth, serious injury or illness, and caregiving, employees are able to take FMLA after adopting a child, fostering a child, or when their spouse, parent or child has been called to active duty.

But advocates for better pay and conditions for workers say that while the FMLA was a good start, it is inadequate for providing what workers really need. “It’s great that workers have the ability to take time off, but they can’t always afford to take the time off,” said Tina Sherman, the breastfeeding/paid leave campaign director for MomsRising.org.

Von Hyman-Miller of Greensboro was working as the executive housekeeper at a Comfort Inn in Rocky Mount when her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007. She had been at the company for seven years and was eligible to take the FMLA, but she could not afford it. She said her boss was nice enough to lay her off so that she could file for unemployment and take the time to care for her mother and still receive some pay.

She returned nine months later and was given a promotion to assistant to the general manager. But her mother’s cancer came back in 2012, and she needed to take time off again. This time, the company would not work with her the way it did the first time.

“If you’ve been at a job for quite some time, I think that company should leave you that type of allotment – something to compensate you to show that you were worth it,” she said. “It doesn’t make the employee feel like they were an asset for the company.”

Sherman said that only about 14 percent of employees are given paid time leave from their employers, and the majority work in sectors like banking or tech.

She said that only 5 percent of low-wage workers even have access to unpaid time off through the FMLA since not all businesses are required to offer it. Businesses must have at least 50 employees for at least 20 work weeks during the year to be required to offer time off through the FMLA. Employees must also work at least 1,250 hours over 12 months to qualify. Therefore, many food and hospitality workers are not able to take leave.

“There’s two main things that I think need to happen,” said Ailen Arreaza, the N.C. program director of Parents Together. “One, it needs to be accessible to all families; two, it needs to be updated because there are many families that don’t qualify for it, and even if you do qualify for it, you can’t take it because it’s unpaid. That shouldn’t have to be a choice.”

Moms Rising is campaigning for a “comprehensive and robust family and medical leave policy” that includes at least 12 weeks of paid time off. “The meaningful length of leave would depend on the doctor; what is the doctor saying that the patient needs,” Sherman said. “We’re advocating for an insurance-style program at the federal level that would lift the financial burden off businesses.”

Beyond childbirth

Maternity leave is often a focus when talking about family leave. In fact, Wake County approved six to eight weeks of paid parental leave for government employees last year, and Durham County approved 12 weeks for its employees. Yet parents are not the only ones affected by the lack of paid leave.

Sherman said that 1 in 5 retirees end up leaving the workforce earlier than they planned to care for an ill spouse or family member. The AARP estimates that these retirees lose more than $300,000 in income as a result.

The average age of caregivers for sick relatives is 49, Sherman said, and women are the ones usually fighting for leave after childbirth. So women are disproportionately affected by the lack of paid leave, including lowering their earnings potential over the span of their career.

Margaret Toman of Garner took care of her mother for 16 years after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Toman, who did administrative work for a local college for seven years, did what she could to schedule appointments around her work and to get help where she could, including putting her mother in an adult day care. “I busted my tail to get her to appointments and get to work,” she said.

She eventually had to take bits of her FMLA leave to spend more time at home, including a week here or there. But, Toman points out, “FMLA doesn’t protect your job or protect you from resentments of co-workers who see you taking time off but don’t understand what it means to care for someone.” She said she would return from work and “the woman I worked for would be looking at her watch and glaring. You get the message.”

When the company decided to downsize, Toman was among those on the chopping block. She believes she was chosen because of taking leave. It took her nearly a year to find another job.

“Of course, my fat nest egg I had before I started caregiving is gone,” she said. Now she’s on Social Security and has no other family left to care for her if she becomes ill. She said she believes family caregivers should get paid a stipend like they do in Vermont and Oregon.

Not just good for workers

Advocates for paid leave for employees argue that the policy would be good for businesses, not just workers.

“It’s shown that 90 percent of businesses have an increase in productivity and employee morale when this is implemented,” Sherman said. “Eighty-seven percent show no increase in costs. Eighty-three percent of mothers who take paid leave return to their employers, so they don’t have to train a new person.”

Paid leave is also a public health issue. Sherman said that over 20 states have introduced legislation for paid family and medical leave, but North Carolina has not. Over the last few years, the infant mortality rate in the state has risen above the national average, and the N.C. Medical Examiner listed a lack of paid leave as potentially one of the reasons for the high rate.

“It is estimated that 23 babies could be saved in North Carolina each year by offering just 10 weeks of paid leave,” Sherman said.

Of course, paid time off can also be used by those who are sick or injured themselves, beyond what they would need for regular sick days for recovery.

“It’s important to have time to heal,” said Vicki Meath, the executive director of Just Economics. “We have too many people that are living paycheck to paycheck. Income inequality in this country continues to go in a trajectory that is getting worse.”

Meath said when she was waiting tables, she continued to work while she had strep throat because she couldn’t afford the time off. She could have spread the infection to numerous people as a result.

“I think in a civilized society, we should be able to have empathy for our neighbors and we should want the same in return,” she said. “The fact is that we all need that at some point, and if you haven’t yet, you will.”



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