President Bush signed the first expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 15 years into law on Jan. 28, 2008. The FMLA expansion was included in a defense authorization package (H.R. 4986) that Congress had approved a week earlier.
Under the FMLA expansion, businesses are required to offer up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave to employees who provide care to wounded U.S. military personnel. Employers also must provide 12 weeks of FMLA leave to immediate family members (spouses, children or parents) of soldiers, reservists and members of the National Guard who have a “qualifying exigency.” While the measure does not define “qualifying exigency,” examples could include overseas assignments, recalls to active duty and troop mobilizations, sources say.
Congress did not specify an effective date for the FMLA provisions, and sources familiar with the issue say employers should consider that the leave expansion took effect the moment the president signed the bill. However, employers don’t need to panic about federal regulators breathing down their necks, sources say.
Chief congressional sponsors of the FMLA expansion have stated that they were aware that employers would need time to comply with the new leave requirements. Still, employers should begin notifying their employees about the new leave options, as soon as possible, recommends Frank Alvarez, a partner with Jackson Lewis and national coordinator of the law firm’s Disability, Leave and Health Management Practice Group, who will be presenting a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) webcast on the topic on Feb. 5, 2008.
“The FMLA is all about notification. Any employer that is prepared to notify [its] employees about these new leave options will be ahead of the game,” Alvarez said.
The leave expansion was signed into law just weeks before the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is expected to release a revised set of regulations for the FMLA based on issues that were sticking points for employers and employees long before the military family provisions were proposed and enacted. DOL officials sent the rule changes—which are not yet available to the news media and the public—to the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review on Jan. 24. While the OMB has 90 days to review the proposed revisions, sources familiar with the issue say the changes could be released and published in the Federal Register as soon as mid-February.
Victoria Lipnic, assistant labor secretary for the Employment Standards Administration, has indicated that the proposed revisions could include some guidelines for the new leave requirements for military families and caregivers. Since Congress approved two previous versions of the FMLA expansion during the last three months of 2007, DOL officials had time to prepare for the changes to the law, sources say.
Congress included the earlier versions of the FMLA expansion into legislation eventually vetoed by the president. The FMLA expansion signed into law is identical to a measure that cleared both houses of Congress and then was vetoed in late December 2007.
Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM Online.