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Few Workers Using Family Leave Law : Only 1% of personnel at most California firms are taking the 12 weeks. Business wonders what the fuss was about.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Linda Kopps, personnel manager at Fireplace Manufacturers Inc. in Santa Ana, remembers worrying last August when the national family leave law took effect. “I thought a slew of workers would use it,” she says. “It seemed so perfect for abuse.”

But in the past 12 months, Kopps says, not a single one of her company’s 202 workers has asked for the federal leave. What does Kopps think about the law now? “It’s not that big of a deal,” she concludes.

While not universal, Kopps’ opinion reflects a broad sentiment among employers in the state and nation. The Family and Medical Leave Act--which allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for childbirth, adoption or serious illness of an employee or family member--hasn’t been as burdensome as employers feared.

For California employers, the worst has been some confusion between the federal law and a similar state-leave rule, which has been in place since 1992. But last October, California’s law was changed to closely conform with the federal act.

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“What it looks like is a lot of business leaders made a big stink about nothing,” says Ron Seide, marketing manager at Kingston Technology Corp. in Fountain Valley, adding that he can not recall anyone at his 300-employee firm who has used the federal leave law.

Patricia Callahan, executive vice president of personnel at San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank, isn’t sure how many of the company’s 19,000 workers have taken the federal leave. Tracking workers on family leave hasn’t been easy, she says, and the law has led Wells Fargo to hire more contract workers and to revise its leave policy. Still, Callahan said, “I don’t know if we have denied it. The company has learned to survive it quite well.”

For some workers, the federal leave has been a godsend. Dawn Gaskill, a sales coordinator at the Costa Mesa Marriott Suites, took almost four months off work for the birth of her second child by combining the state’s pregnancy disability leave time and the amount of time granted under the federal law.

“It was a very big relief to know I would have a job when I got back,” said the 29-year-old Anaheim resident. By contrast, when Gaskill had her first child four years ago, she says she quit her data-entry job because she could not get such an extended leave.

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Taking leave to bond with a newborn, as Gaskill did, probably accounts for most of the people taking the federal leave. But experts say increasingly, workers are using the year-old law to care for an elderly parent.

Barbara Aguil, a lab technician at North American Chemical Co. in Trona, northeast of Bakersfield, had only two vacation days and no sick leave left for this year when her 71-year-old father became critically ill. Aguil says she considered calling in sick, but then her supervisor reminded her of the federal leave. “I had read about (the law) last year, but you don’t think you’re going to need it.”

She did, and the federal law allowed her to care for her father during his last two weeks of life. “It meant the world to me,” Aguil said. “I talked to him, I held his hand, I knew he knew I was there.”

On average, it appears that only 1% or fewer of employees at most California companies are using the family leave, according to a private survey and other reports.

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Experts believe that many more people would ask for the federal leave if companies got the word out about the year-old law. “The bottom line is employers haven’t actively been communicating the law,” says Janice Stanger, an associate at the consulting firm of William M. Mercer Inc., whose survey in January found that fewer than 50% of the California employers questioned had provided information about the federal leave law to their workers.

In one such dispute in Southern California, Paul Worthman, research director at the Service Employees International Union Local 399 in Los Angeles, accuses Kaiser Permanente of failing to post notices about the leave law in various Kaiser centers, as the law requires. “Kaiser never notified employees of the act’s existence,” said Worthman, whose union represents 12,000 workers at eight Kaiser centers. Kathy Logan, a nurse at a Kaiser Permanente clinic in Anaheim, adds that she was written up by her supervisor for taking a leave that Logan believes qualifies under the federal law. “They need to learn about this,” she says.

Kaiser spokeswoman Kathleen Barco, while declining to comment on Logan’s case, says that the health maintenance organization has posted notices and provided information about the federal law through employee newsletters. “I think we’ve met the letter of the law,” Barco says, adding: “In fact, I think we’ve gone beyond it.”

The Service Employee union’s accusation against Kaiser, which has yet to be resolved, is one of 965 complaints lodged nationwide through June 30 with the Labor Department. About 11% of those were filed on the West Coast. Nationwide, labor officials say that six in 10 of the complaints against employers were valid.

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In Orange County, the Santa Ana office of the Labor Department says it has received just four complaints, but information about those cases was not made immediately available.

But even if employers were to do a better job of promoting the federal leave law, it’s not clear there would be a surge of requests. The main reason is that the federal act provides for unpaid leave, and most people simply can’t afford it.

Others don’t want to jeopardize their careers by taking extra time off, which may explain why relatively few people are using the family leave law.

“There’s probably a fear that their co-worker will take the occasion to rise and shine,” says Tom Gardner, the Orange County regional manager of the Employers Group, a statewide association with 5,000 member businesses.

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Many workers also cannot use the federally sanctioned leave because the law does not cover businesses with fewer than 50 employees or workers who have been at their jobs less than a year. And some companies, especially big employers, have long had sick leave and personal leave policies that are as generous as the federal law.

“We’ve always had the ability to take leave,” said Angela Keefe, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 681 in Santa Ana, which represents workers at Disneyland and the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

Perhaps because of the federal leave law, more employers now are also allowing employees to use company sick leave to care for a family member and allowing people to have flexible work schedules, says Renee Christensen, president of Employee Support Systems Co., an Orange-based firm that provides employee assistance and counseling for companies.

But on the whole, were it not for the federal regulations, workers would not be able to take extended leaves, as Steven Meade of Irvine is about to do.

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Meade and his wife, Susan, have been saving for a year so he can spend three months with their first child, expected in late September. Meade, an engineer at the Marriott Suites Costa Mesa, has already received approval for the leave from his employer. “Without the law,” Meade says, “I don’t think I would have taken a lot of time, probably not even the full month.”

Sharon Lockwood, the human resources director for three Marriott hotels in Orange County, including the one at which Meade works, said that in the past Marriott employees had no job guarantee if they took a personal leave of more than 30 days. Lockwood says that at her three hotels, which collectively employ 700 people, about 10 workers have taken the federal leave so far.

To cover for those on leave, Lockwood says she has hired temporary help and juggled employee schedules. But it has not been burdensome, she says, and it has helped build employee loyalty to the company. “It’s extra paperwork, but that’s about it.”

Family-Leave Provisions

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Employers with more than 50 employees are required under the Family and Medical Leave Act to provide 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to eligible employees. Details on the year-old federal law:

REASONS FOR TAKING LEAVE

Birth, adoption or placement of a foster-care child

To care for an ill spouse, child or parent with a serious health condition

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Serious health condition affecting employee’s ability to work

ELIGIBILITY AND ADVANCE NOTICE

Applies to all employees who have been at a job for one year or 1,250 hours in the past 12 months

Employee must provide at least 30 days’ notice, except in emergencies

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Employer may require doctor’s certification to support a request for serious health condition

BENEFITS AND PROTECTION

Employees must be restored to original or equivalent positions with equivalent pay, benefits and other terms

Employer must maintain employee’s group health coverage for duration of the leave

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Act does not supersede any state, local or collective bargaining agreement providing greater family or medical leave rights

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Want to know more about the Family and Medical Leave Act? Contact the Orange County office of the U.S. Department of Labor, Wage & Hour Division, (714) 836-2156.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

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