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Changes coming to the FMLA—For better and for worse

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in Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

After remaining untouched for its first 15 years, the FMLA has received a makeover in the past couple of months—first by Congress, and then by regulators at the U.S. Labor Department. Here are the highlights:

FMLA leave for military families

A law signed Jan. 28 by President Bush says employees caring for wounded military members can take up to 26 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave each year. That’s fairly straightforward.

A second, more complex provision says employers also must grant up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave each year to the immediate family of reservists and National Guard members who are called into active duty, either overseas or in the United States.

Such leave can be taken for any “qualifying” event related to the service member’s absence. Does that mean a spouse’s financial meeting? A counseling session? A child’s school event?

Business groups see the potential for FMLA abuse here and are pushing the Labor Department for a strict definition of qualifying events. The department is accepting comments until April 10 on that definition.

Employers should notify their employees of this new law. (To download a supplemental poster, see the box below.)

Labor Department revisions

After years of promises, the Labor Department on Feb. 11 unveiled more than a dozen proposed revisions to the original FMLA regulations. If they’re approved, the new regs should make it a bit easier for organizations to administer the FMLA.

Although business groups support most of these changes, they had pushed to no avail for even more dramatic, pro-employer moderations.

Among the proposed revisions:

  • A slightly tighter definition of a “serious condition” that qualifies employees for the FMLA.

  • Stricter notification requirements for employees who take intermittent leave.

  • More time (five days instead of two) to send out FMLA designation notices.

  • Easier answers to certification questions—direct contact with the employee’s doctor would be allowed.

  • Clarification on when employers can request FMLA certification.

Two lowlights: In addition to posting an FMLA notice, covered employers also would have to distribute a copy of the law annually or put it in their employee handbooks. Also, the fine for FMLA posting violations would rise from $100 to $110.

Note: These changes aren’t final. They’re open for public comment until April 10. Look for a final version later this year.

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