Minor changes sought in medical-leave act

Proposed revisions would give employers more power to verify that workers are sick.

Federal regulators have proposed relatively minor changes to the popular Family and Medical Leave Act, a relief for advocates who had feared a sweeping rewrite that would have made it difficult for people to take advantage of it.

The proposals, released this month by the Department of Labor, would give employers more leeway to verify that people taking medical leave are actually sick. The proposals would impose other restrictions that business groups said might curb what they see as a major problem: employees who leave their bosses short-handed on short notice.

Regulators proposed no change to the definition of the medical conditions for which people are allowed to take unpaid leave under the act, disappointing employers who have contended that too many workers invoke the act to stay home with a head cold or sore back.

Complaints from employers sparked the months-long review of the act, which guarantees a worker 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a major illness, or the birth or adoption of a child, or to nurse an ailing relative.

The time can be used in one block, to bond with a newborn, for example, or taken as needed for cancer treatment or to deal with other chronic or emergency medical problems.

"Generally, the law is working well," said Victoria Lipnic, assistant secretary of labor for employment standards. "It is certainly highly valued by workers and by employers who believe it's good workplace policy."

But Lipnic said "updates and targeted improvements" were necessary.

The proposed rules would allow employers to ask workers - or their doctors - to more fully document the nature of an injury or illness and estimated length of treatment and recovery. People with chronic medical conditions could be required to renew their applications for leave every six months if the full 12 weeks have not been taken.

So-called intermittent leave has been a "real problem" for bus companies, airlines, emergency-response centers and other employers that depend on a full staff of workers for every shift, said Marc Freedman, labor-law policy director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber was among the business groups that pressed for changes.

Family advocates were not altogether pleased with the proposals.

"Once you open the door to an employer being able to talk with someone's health-care provider, the potential for abuse is huge," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

In addition, she said, requiring workers to renew their leave requests will mean paying for additional doctor visits and more time away from work.

At the same time, Ness said, the Labor Department "left some very important protections in place."

For instance, employers wanted a list of serious health conditions that made workers eligible for the unpaid leave. The proposed rules would not change the definition of a serious condition as one requiring at least three consecutive days of treatment and recovery. The condition also must meet other standards, such as requiring a physician's care or hospitalization.

The family leave law has been popular with workers, particularly to cover childbirth and adoption. The Labor Department estimates that 2.4 million Americans took advantage of the law in 2005. The federal law applies to companies with 50 or more employees.

Last month, President Bush signed a bill expanding the leave law by up to six months for families of wounded military personnel.

The Labor Department will take comments on the latest proposed changes before issuing final regulations later this year. The comment period will end April 11. To submit comments, go to www.regulations.gov and enter "Family and Medical Leave Act" in the "Comment or submission" field.