WASHINGTON The Bush administration is proposing the first changes in more than a decade to regulations that give workers unpaid leave to deal with family or medical emergencies, a move that concerns some of the law's supporters who want to see it expanded.
The Labor Department announced Thursday it had sent the first proposed changes to regulations governing the Family and Medical Leave Act to the White House's Office of Management and Budget for approval.
While refusing to outline the changes, Assistant Labor Secretary Victoria A. Lipnic said the proposed regulations would not reduce the number of people today who can take advantage of FMLA leaves. "People who are currently eligible under this law do not lose their eligibility," she said.
But Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, suggested that officials should be trying to expand the law, not change regulations.
"I'm worried about any effort to cut back or weaken the protections of this law," said Ness, who has not seen the proposed changes. "This is a time where we should be working to expand the protections in place for working families."
The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act grants eligible workers up to a total of 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for such things as caring for a newborn or a sick family member, or because the employee has a serious health condition. It generally covers employers with 50 or more employees.
Seven million people took FMLA leave in 2005, the latest year for which data are available.
Congress voted to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act this year to include six months of leave for military families when a service member gets hurt. Lawmakers also allowed military family members to take FMLA leave for "any qualifying exigency" relating to a family member's call up to active duty or deployment.
The Labor Department is supposed to write regulations to define what a "qualifying exigency" is, Lipnic said. Those regulations are part of what they sent to the White House for approval, she said.
The FMLA expansions are part of a $696 billion defense bill authorizing a 3.5 percent pay raise for troops. Once President Bush signs the bill, it will become the first expansion of the FMLA since it was first passed.
Places likely to see changes include in medical certification for FMLA leaves; unscheduled intermittent leave for people claiming chronic health conditions; and for employee awareness of FMLA rights.
"Our overall theme and goal in these regulations is to reduce uncertainty in the workplace for all parties, employers and the employees," Lipnic said.
In a report issued in June, the department noted that people with chronic health conditions were taking unscheduled intermittent FMLA leave that some companies say is disruptive. It said these complaints were prevalent among industries with time-sensitive operations, such as those in the transportation, delivery, assembly line and public safety sectors.
In the report, the department said employers also complained that some people were abusing the system.
Lipnic said the purpose of the changes is to avoid allowing abuse of the leave act, while making sure not to "hurt people who legitimately have to take leave."
Once approved by the White House, the proposed regulations will be made public in the Federal Register for a 60-day comment period.
Publication in the Federal Register could happen as early as February. Lipnic said she hoped to see final regulations before the end of the year.
The National Partnership for Women and Families said more than 50 million Americans have taken job-protected unpaid leave to care for a new baby or seriously ill family member, or recover from their own serious illness since the law was passed in 1993.