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Family Leave Law Working, Despite Array of Problems : Labor: Some employers are confused, see disruptions. Workers taking unpaid absence sometimes face retaliation.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Mary Brennan’s husband had heart surgery, she took advantage of the new federal family leave policy to take four weeks off from her job running the fax center at Millipore Corp. to care for him at home.

Paul Labelle, public relations director at Stratus Computer in nearby Marlboro, Mass., and his wife also took four weeks of unpaid family medical leave to adopt a child from the former Soviet republic of Moldova. Now they are each working half time for three months so they can help 10-month-old Justin Nikolae adjust to his family.

“Our paramount objective was to complete an adoption,” Labelle said. “It was a sigh of relief to know that because a new federal law was on the books, our employers had to give us the time off and guarantee our jobs.”

But school secretary Debbie Pollio of New Castle, Pa., had a different experience. She was rebuffed when she asked for family medical leave to take her mother to Pittsburgh for cancer treatment. Although the leave eventually was granted after an appeal to the school board, her boss became so angry, she says, that he harassed her until she quit.

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“He royally reamed me out for going above his head,” she said. Her husband had been right, she acknowledged, when he advised her not to expect the new family leave law to make a difference to her employer.

A year after Congress enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act, countless employees across the country have been able to take time off from work to respond to medical emergencies or family crises without fear of losing their jobs.

And many companies have found the law far less onerous than they believed it would be. For the most part, according to Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, the frivolous requests companies feared have not materialized and, because most workers can ill-afford unpaid time off, the overall number of requests has been smaller than anticipated.

In some cases, companies have even improved on the federal law, crafting family leave policies more generous than required.

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But it is also clear that many employers are still confused about the law, and at least some are resisting it outright--because of threatened disruptions to their businesses or simple personal pique.

“It has been as hard as we thought it would be if not harder because the confusion over what an employer has to do to comply with the law is tremendous,” said Peter Eide of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which for years lobbied against such legislation.

The administrative burdens of the new mandate are especially acute for smaller companies without legal staffs and personnel resources, he added. And some employers say they resent the law because, they say, it gives the government an inappropriate right to meddle in their business.

The 9 to 5 National Assn. of Working Women said in a recent report on the law’s first year that employees frequently have faced retaliation from employers for taking advantage of the leave.

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The organization is pressing for better enforcement and a more effective way of informing employees and employers about their rights under the law.

In one sign of the problems, the Labor Department has processed almost 1,000 complaints from employees who have charged their employers with illegally denying them leave, firing them for taking time off, or failing to cover their health benefits while they are out, as required by law. In most cases, the conflicts were resolved with a phone call, federal officials say. But about a tenth of the cases have required more attention, and the government recently filed the first two lawsuits against employers in connection with the law.

Reich maintained that confusion and occasional resistance are to be expected in the first year of a new law and that compliance will improve as more and more companies become familiar with the policy.

With some exceptions, the family leave law specifies that companies employing more than 50 workers must grant employees who request it up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually to care for a new child or a seriously ill immediate family member, or to recover from an illness.

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Companies are required to continue medical benefits for employees on leave and reinstate them in the same or equivalent jobs when they return.

Noting that the current law applies to only about 44% of women and 50% of men in the work force, employee and women’s rights advocates say they hope that the law can be expanded to include employees of smaller companies and part-time workers and to provide paid leaves for low-income workers.

When Clinton signed the legislation on Feb. 5, 1993--one of his first acts as President--he said it would “promote national interests in preserving family integrity.”

By enabling people to balance careers and families, he added, “it will provide Americans what they need most--peace of mind.”

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In some cases that peace of mind has been elusive.

Five months into her pregnancy with triplets, Carla Seale went into premature labor and her husband, Randy, rushed her to the hospital. Although doctors were able to interrupt labor, it was clear that the lives of the unborn triplets were in peril. Randy Seale asked his employer, Associated Milk Producers Inc. of Amarillo, Tex., for family medical leave so he could tend to his wife and soon-to-be-born children.

A week later, he was fired without notice from his job as a truck driver delivering milk from a dairy to a cheese plant.

“It put me under a lot of additional stress,” Carla Seale said. “We had to worry about his job and where we were going to get money for the bills, on top of worrying if the babies would make it.”

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After failing to persuade the company to reinstate Seale, the Labor Department filed suit against Associated Milk Producers, charging it violated the law by firing Seale.

The couple and their triplets, who were born three months prematurely and have been hospitalized for most of their lives, had to move in with Carla Seale’s parents because they ran out of money. Randy Seale earns about half his previous salary picking up work as a mechanic and truck driver and says he wants his old job back.

Sonny Pride, assistant region manager for the company, said his firm was “flabbergasted” by the lawsuit because the firm already had agreed to reinstate Seale after being approached by Labor Department officials.

Pride said Seale was terminated because he failed to keep the company informed of his intentions. The only remaining dispute between the department and the company, he said, was over whether the company owed Seale back wages.

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“He left at a time when we were in desperate need of drivers, but we understood his position,” Pride said. “We would have never terminated him if he had done the proper paper work or at least called to say he could not do it.”

Jennifer Rohnstock, who worked at the advertising department of a major women’s clothing retailer in the Boston area, found herself locked in a testy debate with her employer when she developed pregnancy complications and sought family leave.

“I did not think they were interpreting the law right,” Rohnstock said. “The constant back-and-forth with my company was very frustrating and definitely contributed to a very stressful time.”

Federal officials maintain, however, that such episodes are in the minority and based largely on misinformation and poor communication.

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“The fact that 90% of the complaints were so easily resolved suggests to me that employers still have a long way to go to understand the law,” Reich said.

When it was initially proposed, some employers strongly opposed the legislation, fearing they would be overwhelmed with requests for leave time. A similar bill was vetoed in 1992 by President George Bush, largely because of the anticipated impact on businesses.

But “fears that employers had--such as employees taking advantage of the law--seem not to have been borne out at all,” Reich said, adding that companies report only a tiny percentage of their employees are requesting the leaves.

“What people don’t understand is that this is without pay,” said Beverly Carothers, benefits manager of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Polaroid Corp. “Not that many people take advantage of it.”

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A survey of 300 personnel officers at a conference of the Society for Human Resource Management found that three-quarters complained about the administrative headaches in administering the law. About 35%, however, reported improvements in employee morale and productivity.

Some companies, like Massachusetts-based Millipore Corp., have chosen to go several steps further than the federal law requires and are finding that the policy helps encourage employee loyalty.

Millipore offers to pay employees during the first four weeks of their leaves.

In the first year, 137 of Millipore’s 3,000 employees took family medical leaves averaging four weeks. Previously, the company, which manufactures purification devices in the upscale Boston suburb of Bedford, offered no paternity leave and other leaves were granted at the discretion of supervisors. Few people took them.

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While supervisors sometimes grumble about staffing problems, the company has found its more liberal leave policy to be relatively inexpensive. A survey found that the company spent only about $20,000 for temporary employees and overtime in the first year, according to Gail Warner, the company’s benefits manager. She says she believes that loss is made up in higher productivity when employees return. “I think we gain more than we’ve lost,” Warner said.

Employees agree.

“I think you give back so much more. They were committed to you in your time of need, so you’re more committed to them,” said Carol Melle, an executive secretary who took leave last year to be with her 2-year-old son while he was undergoing surgery. “People say you can separate your life from your work, but you can’t.”

Jim Dimento, 33, recalled being so worried about losing his job when his first child was hospitalized as a newborn that he spent his time shuttling from work to the hospital and could not give his wife or new son the proper attention.

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There was no such dilemma when his second child was born, after he transferred to Millipore. He is already planning to take more leave to care for his father, who has terminal cancer.

“It’s reassuring to know this is something you can depend on,” Dimento, a systems design engineer, said.

“It increases your loyalty to your company,” said Deepak Kini, 29, a chemical engineer who recently took four weeks of paternity leave.

Brennan, who took time to nurse her husband back to health after heart surgery, said the new policy made taking time off a lot less stressful.

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Answers to Questions About Family Leave Law

Question: Who is eligible for family leave?

Answer: Full-time employees working at companies with 50 or more workers who need time off to care for a sick immediate family member, spend time with a new child or to recover from an illness, may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year.

Q: Who is specifically excluded?

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A: Employers are not required to grant leaves to part-time employees or those who have worked less than a year.

Q: Can an employee take leave intermittently?

A: Yes. Under some circumstances employees may take leave in blocks of time or by reducing their normal work schedules.

Q: Is an employer permitted to require a worker to use up paid sick leave and vacation time before taking unpaid leave?

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A: Yes. But the employer is responsible for designating in advance that paid leave counts against the 12 weeks of family medical leave guaranteed by law to employees each year.

Q: Must employers reinstate all employees who take leave to the same or an equivalent position?

A: No. An employer may designate certain workers in the highest paid 10% of their staffs as “key” employees and not guarantee their jobs if they take leave. These employees, however, must be told in advance that their positions are in jeopardy and given a chance to decide not to take leave or return early from a leave.

Q: What can employees be required to submit to their employers?

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A: A 30-day notice, if leave is foreseeable, medical certification if the leave is because of illness or to care for a sick family member, and periodic reports during leave regarding the employee’s status and intent to return to work.

Q: Who has more information on the law?

A: The nearest office of the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor.


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