Within a span of six cruel years, Leta Stachura lost her mother, father, father-in-law, and grandmother -- and then her husband of almost 34 years.
Without the Family and Medical Leave Act, she says, she would have lost her job with Federal Express and her sanity as well.
"My husband died at home with me. The only thing left standing after this was me and my job. I needed it for financial support, and without it I think I would have stayed in bed with the covers over my head ... and never moved again," said Stachura, of Bridgewater, New Jersey. "Family leave was logistically important, financially important, and emotionally important. Without it, I would have had to quit my job. I probably would have ended up in the loony bin if I'd had to worry about my job while I was losing so much."
Stachura is one of an estimated 50 million working women and men who have been able to take needed time off to care for family members or tend to their own serious health problems since the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) became law in 1993, according to Lauren Asher, spokeswoman for the National Partnership for Women and Families. The organization's general counsel, Donna Lenhoff, wrote the first draft of the act and fought for it for nearly 10 years before President Clinton signed it.
Ever since the FMLA was signed, family advocates have been working to strengthen it, while opponents lobby to reduce its reach. "Without it, people who needed to care for a newborn infant or a parent with cancer or a spouse with a serious injury could have lost their jobs or their health insurance or both," Asher said.
Some states are going further than the federal program. California became the first state in the country to adopt a paid family leave program that allows workers to take six weeks off to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child, or ill family member.
The new law, which went into effect July 2004, allows workers to receive 55 percent of their wages during their absence, up to a certain maximum. Several other states have since enacted similar laws.
Meanwhile, the FMLA requires medium-size and large companies to let their employees take an unpaid leave of 12 weeks under the following circumstances:
- They are having or adopting a baby.
- Their child, spouse, or parent has a serious health problem.
- They are pregnant or seriously ill.
- They have a family member in the National Guard and Reserves who is away on active duty supporting a military operation.
- They have a family member in the military with a serious illness or injury incurred in the line of duty. (In this case, an employee may take up to 26 workweeks of leave.)
To qualify for leave, you must have worked 1,250 hours in the previous year. The companies must continue health insurance coverage for employees on leave, and must give them the same job, or an equivalent one, when they return to work.
The federal law covers only companies employing 50 people or more, so the Department of Labor estimates that about 47 million American workers -- over a third of all employees -- are not protected.
One study by the Family and Work Institute found that while employers had initially resisted the idea of family leave, the vast majority (95.8 percent in one sampling) found that it had no effect on productivity, profitability, or growth. A more recent study, in fact, looked at companies with 100 employees or more and discovered that for 42 percent, the law was actually cost-beneficial, and for an equal number it was cost-neutral.
Many firms reported finding that the benefits to employees struggling with tough personal issues outweigh any administrative difficulties.
Stachura was able to put in enough hours at Federal Express, where she'd worked since 1981, to take the maximum leave each year as she dealt with her onslaught of tragedies. She took care of her father-in-law when he developed Alzheimer's disease, helped her father through terminal cancer, and became the guardian of her grandmother and mother. Then her husband was stricken with cancer.
Being able to take leave from her job allowed Stachura to take her husband to specialists in New York and Washington -- and to be with him at home when he died, just four weeks after her mother did.
Companies are required to let their employees know that the leave is available -- and FedEx did so, she said. In her case, getting leave when she wanted was no problem. Some companies can make it difficult for their employees to take the leave, however. In such cases, employees should follow the rules, documenting leave requests and their employers' responses in case legal intervention becomes necessary.
Employees must give 30 days' notice when requesting leave for a foreseeable problem, such as scheduled surgery. But emergency leaves are covered, too. Employers can ask for a note from your doctor saying that you or a family member have a serious problem, but for privacy reasons you don't have to disclose the exact diagnosis.
Job security measures take many forms
The FMLA is not the only protection employees have. Here are a few more resources designed to help workers with medical problems:
- In many cases there are state laws for family and medical leave, and often they are more beneficial than the federal act. For instance, the District of Columbia requires employers there to provide 16 weeks of leave. The state labor department can provide information on family and medical leave in your state.
- Other federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, may offer employees better options in certain circumstances.
- Labor contracts often carry family and medical leave benefits these days.
- Many resources, including Internet Web sites listed below, have detailed information about how to qualify for leave and what to do if you run into problems getting an employer to go along.
Even with its weaknesses, the FMLA grants many employees the freedom to care for their loved ones and to be beside them when they die. "It came to the point with each member of my family that I needed to give them everything I could give them," said Stachura, who believes she is lucky to work for a company covered by the act. "People should never have to choose between helping people they love and having a roof over their head."
National Partnership for Women and Families, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that wrote and backed the FMLA. http://www.nationalpartnership.org
Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco nonprofit that focuses on sex discrimination as well as family and pregnancy leave. http://www.equalrights.org
Employment Law Center, a San Francisco-based organization that is part of the Legal Aid Society. http://www.employmentlawcenter.org
The Labor Project for Working Families, a Berkeley nonprofit. http://www.laborproject.org
The Society for Human Resource Management, a national organization that provides information to people in human resource positions. http://shrm.org
The U.S. Department of Labor's FMLA page http://www.dol.gov/esa/whd/fmla/
Paid Family Leave California. Home Page. http://www.paidfamilyleave.org/
Department of Labor. Federal vs. State Family and Medical Leave Laws. http://www.dol.gov/esa/whd/fmla/
Department of Labor. DOL's Final Rule on Family and Medical Leave Providing Military Family Leave and Updates to the Regulations. January 2009. http://www.dol.gov/esa/whd/fmla/finalrule/factsheet.pdf
Department of Labor. Federal vs. State Family and Medical Leave Laws. January 2007. http://www.dol.gov/esa/programs/whd/state/fmla/index.htm
Galinsky, Ellen; Bond, James T. Families and Work Institute's 1998 Business Work-Life Study. Families and Work Institute: 1998.
Sloan AJ. Family leave. A Q & A guide. RN. 2000 Sep;63(9):81-4, 86, 88.
Sick leave for family care purposes. Office of Personnel Management. Final rule. Fed Regist. 2000 Jun 13;65(114):37234-40.
Family and medical leave. Office of Personnel Management. Final rule. Fed Regist. 2000 May 8;65(89):26483-7.
National Partnership for Women and Families. Facts about the FMLA: What does it do, who uses it and how. www.nationalpartnership.org.