WASHINGTON – Twenty years after he made it the first bill he signed into law as president, Bill Clinton was in Washington Tuesday to celebrate the Family and Medical Leave Act.
The act, which allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off to welcome a new baby, care for a loved one or cope with an illness, had been hotly debated for a decade and was vetoed twice by Clinton’s predecessor, George H.W. Bush.
In the 20 years since that debate culminated with the act’s passage, the law has been used more than 100 million times, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
“People desperately want to have successful families, to be good parents and to have a job and succeed at it,” Clinton said during an appearance at the headquarters of the Department of Labor, according to The Associated Press. “If you take one away to get the other, the country pays a grievous price and every life is diminished.” Clinton also wrote an opinion piece for Politico, a Capitol Hill publication, hailing the law’s 20th anniversary.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, when Clinton made passage of the act a signature issue, business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, argued the rules would be an unwelcome government intrusion that would bog companies down in paperwork, dampen profits and lower productivity. “They said the sky would fall, and they’ve been proven wrong,” said Ellen Bravo, a longtime activist for women in the work force who now leads Family Values @ Work, a coalition of groups pressing to expand the law in various states. “Most employers have found it’s now just part of life.”
To some extent, former opponents of the act agreed. “Back in the day, when this was being debated in Congress, politicians were waving all manner of red flags,” said Bruce Elliott, manager of compensation and benefits at the Society for Human Resource Management – a group that fought the bill. “I don’t think that it’s played out that way at all.” Still, Elliott and others said the law does require businesses to adjust. “Compliance has always been a headache and will continue to be,” Elliott said. Elliott said the society, which has about 380 employees, spends about two or three hours a week completing act related paperwork.
Few business owners are opposed to letting employees take time off to care for a loved one or bond with a new baby, said Elizabeth Milito, senior executive counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business. But she said it is difficult for small-business owners to manage unplanned, intermittent leave and properly file federal forms required by the act. According to a survey commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor and released Monday, 48 percent of businesses use a dedicated human-resources employee and purchase computer software to manage family and medical leave paperwork. Another 10 percent hire an outside firm to do the job. “Small businesses can’t pass the cost along to their customers,” she said. “It’s going to be a cost they’re going to have to eat.”
The law applies to companies with at least 50 employees. Milito said about 10,000 of the federation’s members have between 50 and 100 workers. Currently, the law doesn’t require employers to pay employees for the time they spend on family or medical leave. But the National Partnership for Women and Children and other groups hope to change that. They’re pushing for revisions to the law. Supporters of the act say employee morale is improved when workers are allowed to come back to work after an extended illness or pregnancy.
“It allows them to return to the work force more focused, more centered and more loyal to their employers,” said Vicki Shabo, director of worker and family programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families. But opponents say that when co-workers are expected to do the job of a worker out for an extended period of time, morale may actually deteriorate throughout the company, even as overtime costs rise. “Small businesses can’t just bring in someone from a temp agency” to replace a worker on leave, said Milito. “That’s a cost small businesses can’t afford.”