Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

March 26,  2007  



Bills would expand family leave coverage

By Thomas F. Coleman

Two states are considering proposals to provide more workers with a right to take extended leave to care for seriously ill family members. A similar measure was introduced but failed in Congress two years ago.

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted into federal law in 1993.   Covered employers must grant a worker up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a seriously ill parent, child, or spouse.

Similar statutes have now been enacted by 11 states, including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin.  These state laws generally provide employees with more coverage.

California expanded its law in 2005 to provide partial pay to workers who take family medical leave.  Payments come from a portion of the California unemployment insurance fund which is funded totally by employee contributions.

California's paid family leave act has been used by 400,000 workers since it went into effect.

This year, state Senator Sheila Kuehl introduced a bill (SB 727) to expand eligibility to care for a grandparent, grandchild, or sibling.  Current law in California already includes domestic partners.

In support of her bill, Kuehl cited a government report showing that most claims which have been rejected by the state's family leave fund involve workers caring for grandparents or siblings.

San Diego radio station KPBS ran a news segment about the Kuehl bill earlier this month.  It included a sound clip from Carina Barlow, a medical records technician, who was denied leave to care for her brother.

"My older brother had a heart attack due to diabetes," Barlow said.  "And I was denied time off work simply because I was not his wife, his mother or his child."

The Maine Legislature is considering a bill which would allow workers to take extended leave to care for a domestic partner.  This would include an unmarried opposite-sex or same-sex partner who has lived with the employee for 12 months if the couple are financially interdependent.

State Senator Dennis Damon sponsored the bill (LD 375) which would require all businesses in Maine with 15 or more employees to provide the same family medical leave to married and unmarried couples alike. 

Representative Janet Mills, co-sponsor of the measure, said it would help unmarried heterosexual couples and nontraditional families, as well as gays and lesbians.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce has indicated that it will testify in support of the bill.

Even if the bill is enacted into law, the measure will come too late for state employee Sandra Osterby.  She had asked for extended leave in 2004 to care for Donna Curtis, her lesbian partner of more than 20 years.

Curtis, who was diagnosed with lung cancer, needed assistance as she underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Osterby ultimately was able to take time off, but only by using her own vacation days and personal sick days.  When that time was used up, fellow workers donated their own vacation days to make up the difference.

Looking to Capitol Hill, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) and 44 co-sponsors introduced a bill two years ago to expand federal law to include domestic partners, grandparents, siblings, and parents in-law.  The bill died in committee.

The Family Medical Leave Act was a popular political issue, at least with Democrats, in the early 1990s. 

It was Bill Clinton's promise to enact such a law which helped him win the presidential race in 1992.  Former President George Bush had twice vetoed the legislation.

Public opinion solidly supports the Family Medical Leave Act.  Some polls show a majority of Americans supporting its expansion to include some form of paid time off for extended leave to care for a family member who is seriously ill.

Initial opposition by business leaders has dwindled.  According to a bipartisan commission, 84 percent of employers now believe that the benefits of providing leave under the FMLA offset or outweighed the costs.

The new Democratic majority in Congress should closely watch what happens in California and Maine. 

If these state measures are enacted, the timing may be right for a renewed effort to expand federal law to move beyond spouses and children to include various unmarried family relationships. 

Congress might also consider offering some form of paid leave.

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Unmarried America 2007

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.