Expansion of FMLA Approved by Congress

By Bill Leonard Dec 17, 2007
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The first expansion of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) since 1993 cleared a final hurdle in Congress when the Senate voted 90-3 to approve the National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 1585) on Dec. 14, 2007. The measure had passed the House of Representatives just two days before, also with overwhelming bipartisan support.

The legislation now moves onto White House, where officials have indicated that President Bush will sign the bill into law. A conference committee with members from both houses of Congress crafted the final version of H.R. 1585, which includes a provision granting FMLA-protected leave to workers who provide care to wounded U.S. soldiers and to family members of military reservists called to active duty.

The final version of the FMLA expansion is a combination of several different proposals, which have been under consideration in Congress for months. Most of the proposals surfaced after the President’s Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors issued a list of recommendations in March 2007.

Both houses of Congress approved a similar proposal to expand the FMLA into legislation that would have reauthorized the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. However, President Bush vetoed the bill and supporters of the FMLA expansion then moved to attach the provision to H.R. 1585.

The final measure requires that employers provide 12 weeks of FMLA leave to the immediate family members (spouses, children or parents) of reservists or members of the National Guard who are called to active duty in the U.S. military. Under the new law, employers also must offer up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave to employees who are providing care for family members wounded while serving in the U.S. military. Workers can take the leave in increments of the shortest time periods tracked by their employers’ payroll system.

It is unclear when President Bush would sign the measure into law, but sources familiar with the issue say the president will sign the bill soon—most likely before Christmas. The measure does not stipulate an effective date for the FMLA expansion, which has left many people wondering if the law will take effect on the day the president signs it.

Members of Congress who sponsored the leave expansion have said they are aware that employers will need time to prepare and comply with the new requirements. Several business-related groups, including the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), have asked the key sponsors of the measure to draft a statement clarifying their intent regarding an effective date. At the same time, officials with the Department of Labor have told Congress that they will need time to draft new regulations.

Sources familiar with the issue say that while the federal government won’t begin strict enforcement of the new leave requirements immediately, employers do need to review the changes with their attorneys or in-house counsels and be ready to comply with the new law as soon as possible.

“We are seeking further guidance on when and how the new leave provisions will take effect,” said Lisa Horn, manager for health care for SHRM. “Still, employers do need to be aware that the law is changing, and that they should begin preparing now to comply with these changes.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM Online.

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