State Workers Deserve FMLA Protections

Sarah Crawford

September 29, 2011 | Economic Justice

This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Daniel Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals - a case that could erode the right of millions of women and men to work free from discrimination and to take job-protected, unpaid leave for serious medical conditions.

In 1993, Congress enacted the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to address persistent sex discrimination caused by unfair employee leave policies. The FMLA guaranteed workers job-protected, unpaid leave for two key reasons: self-care and family-care. A primary purpose of the self-care provision was to prevent discrimination against women based on pregnancy and childbirth. Congress heard ample evidence that outdated workplace policies and practices denied women equal employment opportunity. The self-care provision offered leave on a gender neutral basis to avoid creating incentives for further discrimination against women.

The FMLA set an important family and medical leave standard that guarantees eligible workers - both women and men - up to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave to recover from a serious illness or medical condition, including pregnancy or childbirth, or to care for a newborn, a newly adopted child or a seriously ill family member. At the National Partnership, we know the details well. After all, we drafted and led the fight for this critical law.

Since its enactment 18 years ago, workers have used the FMLA more than 100 million times. It has helped workers with new babies and dying parents, workers disabled by pregnancy or recovering from childbirth, and workers who have had heart attacks and hysterectomies. More than six million private and public sector workers take FMLA leave each year. It is an incredibly important law for the country's women and families. But the case now before the Supreme Court could put access to FMLA leave - and the protection from discrimination it ensures - at risk for millions of state workers.

Daniel Coleman was working for a Maryland court when his doctor ordered bed rest due to serious illness. Coleman requested medical leave and, within hours, was fired. Soon after, and with good reason, he filed a lawsuit under the self-care provision of the FMLA.

Unfortunately, the lower courts ruled that the state of Maryland can't be sued for such violations and they denied his claim. The Supreme Court must now decide if Congress intended for the FMLA's self-care provision to cover state workers like Coleman. This should be an easy case because the language of the law makes clear that Congress expressly included state workers. The Court should rule to affirm their essential rights.

That's why, this week, the National Partnership led a coalition of the country's top civil and workers' rights and labor organizations that filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Court to uphold fundamental FMLA rights for state workers. As we explain, Congress always intended for state workers to be covered by both provisions of the law. And states must be held accountable - like other employers - if they violate it.

The Supreme Court already has established that Congress intended for state workers to be covered by the family-care provision of the FMLA. In the 2003 case of Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, we represented state worker, William Hibbs, in his appeal to hold the state of Nevada accountable for violating the family-care provision. The Court ruled that Congress did intend to protect state workers from sex discrimination through that provision.

The Court got it right in the Hibbs case, and the same rule should apply to the self-care provision at issue in the Coleman case. The fundamental right of millions of state workers to take time for their own serious medical needs, including pregnancy and childbirth, is at stake.


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