Lobbyists Play Tug of War Over Family Leave

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, April 26, 2005; E01

Welcome to "Family Feud," Washington-style.

The Labor Department has been mum about its plans to make changes to a Family and Medical Leave Act rule that allows workers unpaid time off to handle serious illnesses and health problems. The cone of silence has stoked a recent burst of lobbying from interest groups seeking to change the rules or preserve them.

Fueling the interest is Labor's failure to begin work on revisions to the current standard by the end of March, a date it targeted in its most recent semiannual regulatory agenda.

Victoria A. Lipnic , assistant secretary of labor for employment standards, said the delay is due, in part, to staffing needs. About 20 regulators had to shift their attention from examining the family leave issue to a new rule governing how employers pay overtime to workers, a controversial standard that was issued last summer. Despite constant inquiries from interest groups about the schedule, she said "there is no indication when the rules will be published."

Some in the business community wonder whether the Bush administration is hesitant about overhauling the rule because it wants to avoid setting off a political firestorm like the one that followed the overtime rules.

"The administration is still weighing the pros and cons of going forward," said Randy Johnson , U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for labor and employee benefits.

Changing the family leave rule is at the top of industry's to-do list, now that it got Congress to withdraw the Clinton-era ergonomics rule on repetitive motion injuries and saw the Bush administration tailor the nation's overtime pay rules more to its liking.

The family leave rules require companies with more than 50 employees to offer 12 weeks of annual unpaid leave for the birth of a baby or serious illness of the employee, parent, child or spouse.

"We feel very strongly that the time has come to review these regulations," said Sarah Faye Pierce , manager of employment legislation for the Society for Human Resource Management , an industry trade group. "The law has benefited millions. But there are circumstances when medical leave isn't being used for truly serious conditions."

Faye said business wants a clear definition of what constitutes a serious medical condition (companies allege that employees can take it for poison ivy and ingrown toenails). It also wants intermittent medical leave to be taken in larger increments so it is easier to track. And it wants more authority to check whether time off that is being taken repeatedly is for legitimate reasons.

"We are talking about a few small tweaks that will make it [the law] work better and not affect employees who use it legitimately," said Sandy Boyd , vice president of human resource policy for the National Association of Manufacturers . She said one of the irksome abuses is employees who regularly take unscheduled leave at the same time each week or before a holiday.

The campaign against the rules has energized the opposition. The National Partnership for Women and Families , a worker advocacy group that helped write the law, is going all out to keep the rule just as it is by accusing business of trying to roll back the benefits.

The partnership said the rule is extremely popular with the 50 million employees who have used it since 1993 and should not be touched. The group mobilized about 200 organizations to support keeping the rule as is. To press the point, it had workers describe their need for the benefits in a conference call with reporters April 14.

About 100 Democratic members of Congress wrote Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao on April 11, urging her "not to make any regulatory changes that would undercut the critical protections" the law offers to workers and their families. A letter from Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) followed the next day. It opposed change to the rule, especially in the wake of the "sweeping changes" the Labor Department made to overtime policies.

"It's hard to frame this issue in any other way other than it would be a rollback [of benefits] for working families. It cuts across all demographic groups and all workers. I can't imagine that the administration wouldn't want to support working families," said Debra Ness , president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. Ness worked on the original FMLA legislation.

The NAM, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Society for Human Resource Management, along with about 75 other trade groups, have formed what they call the National Coalition to Protect Family Leave . It used to be known as the FMLA Technical Corrections Coalition.

The new coalition has placed ads in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, and the Washington Times saying that co-workers have to work longer hours and miss time with their own families when colleagues "take advantage of a good law by using leave as free days off."

Pierce said the coalition is asking members of Congress who want change to send letters to the Labor Department.

Business also moved to preempt a press conference by its pro-status-quo opponents by holding its own briefing a day earlier.

And the push to alter the contours of the rule is likely to be bolstered by a study released by the Employment Policy Foundation April 19. It calculated that it cost employers $21 billion last year to administer the leave. The group that did the study describes itself a Washington-based research group that is funded by nonprofits, corporate foundations and individuals.

Ness said the study looks at only one piece of the problem. "What are the costs of not having the FMLA?" she asked.