National Partnership for Women & Families

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Sarah Crawford, Director of Workplace Fairness

From the desk of ... Sarah Crawford

Improving Access to the FMLA Through Improved Forms

December 14, 2011 | Workplace Fairness

Nearly 20 years ago, passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was a major milestone in the effort to help families meet their work and family needs. For the first time ever, many workers were guaranteed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for a close family member or address their own serious health concerns, including pregnancy and childbirth. For women in particular, the law aimed to combat gender discrimination by granting women and men equal access to leave and preventing women from being penalized or unfairly denied job opportunities due to assumptions about their family caregiving responsibilities.

To date, no other law has had a greater impact on workers' ability to meet their work and family obligations, without sacrificing their jobs, than the FMLA. In fact, we estimate that the law has been used more than 100 million times by women and men across the country. But sadly, nearly half of the workforce isn't eligible for FMLA leave, others may not know the law exists or experience other barriers to accessing it, and many cannot afford to take the unpaid leave it provides (which is why it is important that Congress and state legislators adopt paid leave programs).

The National Partnership was the lead organization behind the FMLA and the driving force behind its passage. We have long supported efforts to expand the law, increase eligibility and improve overall access. We helped win amendments in 2008 and 2009 that now provide military families up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave under the law to care for a wounded service member, or up to 12 weeks for qualifying exigencies related to active duty. And forward-thinking legislators in many states have advanced their own expansions of the law to cover more workers. Find out what your state offers through our policy database: www.nationalpartnership.org/wfdb

We're always seizing opportunities to improve the FMLA and make accessing leave easier for workers. So when the Department of Labor (DOL) announced it was seeking comments on the forms used by employers and employees when an FMLA leave request is made, we knew it was an important chance to address a potential barrier to accessing FMLA leave. DOL currently provides model forms for employers and employees to use in providing notice of FMLA eligibility, rights and responsibilities, and for the certification and re-certification of need for leave. While these forms are aimed at making the process easier, there is room for improvement to help ensure smoother application of the FMLA.

In a letter the National Partnership submitted to the department, joined by 60 of our committed allies, we recommended key ways to enhance the clarity and usefulness of these forms - and stressed the need to minimize paperwork burdens for workers. Our key recommendations included giving employees access to a new optional form to request leave, removing irrelevant and invasive medical questions, and requiring employers to properly explain their reasons for denying a request for leave. We believe that these adjustments can go a long way toward reducing some common barriers to FMLA leave.

Much more can - and must - be done to ensure that all workers can take the job-protected time they need to care for their families and their own serious health conditions - and request forms are an important consideration. We are happy the department has taken on the issue and hope the comments it receives will result in improved forms and, consequently, improved access to FMLA leave for working families. Our nation's families, businesses and communities will be stronger when workers can take the job-protected time they need.


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