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Labor Department marks 20th anniversary of Family and Medical Leave Act

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Employers generally have not had much difficulty meeting their compliance obligations under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, according to a Labor Department study published on Monday to mark the 20th anniversary of the law's enactment.

Signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Feb. 5, 1993, the FMLA allows eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year in cases of serious illness or injury, or to care for sick or injured family members.

According to the Labor Department's study, “Family and Medical Leave in 2012: Final Report,” 85% of employers offering FMLA benefits in 2012 indicated that complying with the law's provisions has been very easy, somewhat easy, or had no noticeable effect on their administrative workload.

A majority of the 1,812 employers surveyed also indicated that the law's coverage requirements have not significantly increased costs over the years. Between 65% and 74% of employers said FMLA compliance has not noticeably impacted costs associated with administrative functions, hiring and training costs or continuing benefits for employees on FMLA-qualified leaves of absence, according to the study.

Additionally, only 8% of employers reported that complying with the FMLA law has negatively impacted their profitability, employee productivity, absenteeism, turnover and company morale.

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"The Family and Medical Leave Act codified a simple and fundamental principle: Workers should not have to choose between the job they need and the family members they love and who need their care," acting Secretary of Labor Seth D. Harris said in a statement released on Monday. "The FMLA has helped millions upon millions of working families manage challenging personal circumstances at very little cost to their employers and with very little disruption in the workplace."

While experiences with the FMLA have been generally positive, the Labor Department study also revealed some gaps in employers' comprehension of the law's applicability. Under the law, employers with 50 or more employees living within 75 miles of a given worksite are required to provide FMLA leave to eligible employees.

According to the Labor Department's study, nearly 17% of employers reported that they offer FMLA leave, but nearly two-thirds of them were not required to do so. Additionally, 30% of all employers surveyed indicated that they are unsure as to whether the FMLA law applies to them.

The study also revealed that nearly 29% of all employers offering FMLA leave--including those that are not required to offer it--do not allow leave for all qualified reasons under the law.

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“While there are complexities that arise with FMLA compliance, the overarching goal of the Act has been realized and will continue to be respected in American workplaces,” Cara Woodson Welch, vice president of public policy and public affairs for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based human resources professional association WorldatWork said in a statement. “Passage of FMLA 20 years ago was a significant achievement in workplace policy. WorldatWork honors that achievement and looks forward to working with the Department of Labor and others to improve the administration of the law so that it continues to benefit workplaces nationwide for years to come,” she said.

At least one advocacy group marked the law's 20th anniversary by urging Congress to revise its eligibility provisions. In a statement released on Monday, the Washington-based National Partnership for Women and Families said the law should be expanded to include caregivers of parents-in-law, grandparents, grandchildren, siblings, domestic partners and same-sex spouses. The NPWF also pushed for employers' compliance threshold to be lowered to 20 employees, down from 50 employees.

“We intended the FMLA to be the first step on the road to a family friendly nation,” Debra L. Ness, president of the NPWF said in the group's statement. “The law has been a huge success but it's time — past time — to take the next step. We are asking Congress to expand the law so more workers can take leave for more reasons, and to adopt a national paid family and medical leave program.”