President Clinton on Saturday proposed an expansion of the popular but controversial Family and Medical Leave Act, and promised a nationwide campaign to make an estimated 67 million eligible workers more aware of the available benefits.
The expansion, if approved by Congress, would allow eligible workers a maximum of 24 hours of unpaid leave a year for such everyday duties as attending parent-teacher conferences or taking a child or an elderly relative to a doctor’s appointment. While workers would lose pay during this leave, they would be shielded by the law against any other penalty.
In his weekly Saturday radio broadcast, Clinton said his proposed expansion of the act would “make our families stronger and our workers more productive--building the kind of country and economy we all want for our children.”
The act now provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave every year for the birth of a child, the adoption or initial foster care of a child, and care related to serious illness of the worker or the worker’s child, spouse or parent. Health benefits are maintained during the leave, and workers are guaranteed their job back when they return. Only companies with 50 or more employees are covered, and the highest-paid 10% of employees are exempt if they are essential to the operation of the business.
Prominent Republicans, including former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, opposed the legislation as an unfair burden on employers. Two bills had been vetoed by President Bush.
But polls show that the legislation signed into law by Clinton four years ago has proved popular with the public, even among Republican voters. The president, during his reelection campaign, promised to expand it with a provision allowing 24 hours of leave for doctor visits and parent-teacher meetings.
So far, according to a bipartisan commission monitoring the law, only 12 million workers have taken advantage of the provisions. The president attributed the relatively small participation rate to a lack of awareness of what the law does. He promised a “multimedia public education campaign to spread the word about family leave.”
He urged Americans to use a new toll-free telephone number to obtain information about the law: (800) 959-FMLA. Internet users can obtain information though the Department of Labor’s Web site: https://www.dol.gov/ The Labor Department intends to place advertisements about the benefits of the act on radio and in newspapers and magazines.
To illustrate the value of the act, Clinton cited the case of Christy Sens, a first-grade teacher from Fairfax, Va., who was in the Oval Office while he delivered his broadcast. Her school district originally allowed only six weeks of leave for childbirth. The president said that in 1993, Sens was almost forced to choose between returning after six weeks or taking the entire school year off without pay.
“Because of our new law,” Clinton said, “she was able to spend 12 full weeks at home, recovering from her pregnancy and spending precious time with her new daughter.” Sens took 12 weeks of leave again in 1995 for the birth of a second child.
There was no immediate comment on the proposed expansion from Republican leaders in Congress. Without commenting on Clinton’s latest proposal, Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), a co-sponsor of the legislation, hailed what on Wednesday will be the fourth anniversary of Clinton’s signing of the act. “Most of all, this law is about family values and preserving a standard of decency to protect the jobs for workers trying so hard to capture their own piece of the American dream,” Roukema said.
In a statement clearly designed to refute predictions by critics that the act would harass business, the Labor Department said Saturday that it had received only 6,346 complaints during four years, mostly from workers who said their employers had refused to reinstate them in the same or similar job.
The agency said almost all the complaints had been resolved.