Our nation's service members make enormous sacrifices for our country - and so do their families. When a parent, spouse, child or sibling is deployed, family members often must rearrange their lives to cope with the departure of their loved one; that may involve everything from moving to a new home, to finding or changing a job, to making complex financial and legal arrangements, to taking in a child, to rescheduling child care, and much more. And when a service member returns from duty injured and in need of medical care, family members often need to take time away from work to assist them.
Congress acknowledged these sacrifices and challenges in 2008 when it expanded access to job-protected leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to military family members. Certain military family members were guaranteed up to 26 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to help care for service members injured in combat and up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to address situations that arise when a service member has been notified of impending active duty or deployment.
But in 2008, Congress only guaranteed access to FMLA leave to certain military family members. That's why, more recently, Congress again passed an amendment aimed at increasing military families' access to the leave they need. With more than two million service members having been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan alone, these changes are both welcome and necessary. This time, the right to take FMLA leave was clearly extended to family members of veterans whose combat injuries require care, as well as family members of deployed active duty service members (such leave had previously been limited to family members of the reserves and national guardmembers). It also expanded the definition of military caregiver leave to cover serious injuries or illnesses that result from the aggravation of a preexisting condition in the line of duty.
In January, the Obama administration announced its intention to ensure expanded FMLA rights for military family members become a reality. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is now in the process of developing the regulations necessary to implement Congress' most recent changes.
The proposed regulatory changes are a major victory and step forward for nearly 200,000 military family members who will now be eligible to take the time necessary to address new realities and challenges caused by a family member's call to duty. Thousands of family members will now be eligible to take time off to care for an injured service member or veteran. The benefits for service members who need care, their caregivers and their family members will be significant.
As part of the implementation process, the National Partnership for Women & Families and more than 60 other organizations recently recommended improvements to DOL's proposed regulations that would strengthen and make more effective the protections guaranteed by the FMLA. Among other recommendations, we urged the department to ease the requirements governing the evidence veterans must provide in order for their family members to qualify for leave. We also encouraged the department to expand the types of situations that may necessitate leave when a family member is deployed. Finally, we suggested changing the regulations to allow same-sex partners to take leave to care for a partner injured in service.
These new caregiver protections for service members and their families are an enormous step in the right direction for families and the country, but there is much more to be done to protect all workers who need leave.
Congress needs to make the FMLA available to more people. Nearly half of the workforce is not currently eligible for the leave it provides. It's time to amend the FMLA to cover businesses with 25 or more employees, instead of those with 50 or more employees. And Congress should pass the Family and Medical Leave Inclusion Act (H.R.2364/S.1283), which would expand the definition of family member under the FMLA to include domestic partners, parents-in-law, adult children, siblings, grandchildren and grandparents.
Perhaps most importantly, Congress should prioritize a paid leave standard for workers who need to take leave to care for a loved one, for their own serious health conditions or for a new child. The FMLA was an important first step in guaranteeing workers access to unpaid leave nearly 20 years ago, but many of those who are eligible for it cannot afford to take it. Without paid leave, workers are forced to jeopardize their economic security and their families' health when serious medical emergencies and conditions arise.
Congress and the Department of Labor have made great strides in strengthening the FMLA for military families in recent years. The nation needs even more. Paid leave and expanded FMLA access are necessary next steps if we are to truly support working families and caregivers. We can't afford to wait.
For more information, visit Workplace Fairness, National Partnership for Women & Families.
For information on caregiving and veterans, Family Caregiver Alliance has a Caregiving & Veterans web page with links to articles, publications and other helpful resources.