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FMLA amended: Will new law open door to further changes?

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For the first time since it became law in 1993, the FMLA is on the verge of being amended. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted in recent days to extend FMLA protections for employees whose family members serve in the military.

President Bush signaled his intention to sign the bill—H.R. 1585—into law, probably before Christmas.

The FMLA amendments, part of the massive National Defense Authorization Act that funds the Pentagon, expand employees’ FMLA rights in two key areas:

  1. Employers must grant 26 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave to employees caring for family members wounded in the course of military duty.
  2. Employers must grant 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave to immediate family members of reservists and members of the National Guard who are called to active duty in the U.S. armed forces. Service members need not be deployed overseas to trigger eligibility for the 12 weeks of leave. The amendment applies to qualifying situations "arising out of the fact that the spouse, son, daughter, or parent of an employee is on active duty (or has been notified of an impending call or order to active duty) in the Armed Forces….”

The FMLA amendments enjoyed unusually bipartisan support. The House version of the bill passed 370-49 on Dec. 14, while the Senate version passed 90-3 later that day.

Loose ends remain to be tied up. The legislation does not specify a date when the amendments will take effect. It’s possible they will become law the day the president signs the bill. The Labor Department has said it will work fast to develop regulations on how employers must respond, but acknowledged it will take several weeks at minimum.

The Society for Human Resource Management is urging employers to contact their attorneys to gauge the effect of the amendments on their organization's leave policies.

More FMLA changes to come? It’s too soon to tell whether Congress’s action will open the door to further changes. Various FMLA-related bills are sitting in the hopper, including legislation to turn FMLA into a paid-leave law and lower the employer threshold to 25 employees.

Congress faces an already-full plate heading into the New Year, and the election year is sure to play havoc with legislative timelines. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the FMLA remains popular with the public. That makes further FMLA amendments a relatively risk-free way for politicians on both sides of the aisle to score points with voters.

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