A year later, leave act still in its infancy


When his wife was pregnant with their first child last year, Christopher Given, a longtime oil company employee in Houston, heard a news report about a new federal law allowing many workers unpaid leave and continued health benefits for such events as the birth of a child.

Mr. Given, 36, who says he attended every prenatal check-up with his wife and hopes to be a 50/50 partner in the rearing of

their child, made mental note of the news item.

Several months later, he applied for leave and was able to witness the birth of Christopher Jr. and to spend the first 2 1/2 months of his young son's life being a full-time dad.

Then, Mr. Given says, the other shoe dropped. He says that shortly after he returned in January to his job as a senior purchasing assistant, he was fired as punishment for having taken time off. His former employer, Shell Oil Co., disputes the claim. "They were retaliating because I took the Family and Medical Leave Act," Mr. Given says.

But armed with the ammunition of the new statute, Mr. Given returned fire: He has sued Shell in federal court, accusing it of violating federal law. Shell calls Mr. Given's allegations "groundless" and "untrue."

Give employees' clout

The Family and Medical Leave Act just celebrated its first birthday, and its main effect on the workplace may be that it has given thousands of employees clout when they encounter problems getting time off to tend to family emergencies or illnesses.

Mr. Given's case is unusual in that he has taken his grievance against Shell to court; his lawsuit, requesting, among other things, restoration of his old job, back wages and modest damages, is one of only a handful of such actions nationwide.

But thousands of others have turned to the U.S. Department of Labor and advocacy groups for assistance, either requesting printed notice of their rights or an informational phone call to their employer.

Not everyone is thrilled about the law. Family and women's advocates say it has had little impact because it applies to so few workers, yet business officials complain that it has proved an administrative headache. Almost everyone agrees that ignorance of the law, by both employers and employees, remains vast.

Nonetheless, many also agree on another point: that the act has ushered into the workplace new honesty about the weight of family concerns on employees.

"There is not as much secrecy now about, 'Yes, I'm pregnant,' or, 'Yes, I have elder-care responsibilities,' " says Dana Friedman, co-president of the Families and Work Institute, a New York-based research group. The Family and Medical Leave Act "is really opening up the door to talking about these issues and having companies better understand employees and what their family needs are."

Taking care of emergencies

Introduced into Congress in 1985 and twice vetoed by President Bush, the landmark legislation overcame years of opposition from business groups when, amid much fanfare last year, it became the first bill signed into law by President Clinton. It allows eligible workers of employers with 50 or more employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave -- with continuation of health benefits -- when they or a family member face serious illness or such family emergencies as birth or adoption. The law went into effect last Aug. 5.

During the law's first year, one of its chief problems has been its very newness, according to employment lawyers, Labor Department officials and others who say employers and employees still have a lot to learn about the law.

One small example: Only 46 percent of employees responding to an informal survey by 9to5, a national association of working women, reported that their workplaces had posted information about the law, as required.

But labor officials, who note that they have answered 130,000 requests for information, also point to what they consider a low number of complaints as evidence that the law is taking root in the workplace. In the first 11 months the law was in effect, the U.S. Department of Labor fielded 965 complaints nationally, a relatively small number, it says, considering that 1.5 million to 2 million employees were estimated to be eligible for leave in that period.

About 590 complaints proved to be violations of the law -- primarily refusals of employers to return leave-takers to the same or similar jobs as required by the law -- and 90 percent were resolved after labor officials contacted employers.

So far, the labor department has filed no suits in connection with the new law. "We are looking at these small number of cases that have not been resolved with an eye to making a decision about which would be appropriate for litigation to send the message that the Department of Labor stands ready to enforce the law aggressively," says Maria Echaveste, administrator of the Department of Labor's wage and hour division.

More education needed

Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says he wants to see wider education about the law.

"More employers need to be aware of their responsibilities. More employees need to be aware of their rights," he says. "This is not surprising in the first year of a new law. We will concentrate our efforts on getting the word out."

For their part, many employers and employer groups concede that the law has not caused the large-scale workplace disruption that some business opponents of the legislation had predicted. At the same time, some say the administrative burden has been too heavy. "Each leave has to be evaluated to see how much leave the person has already taken, what is the reason for the leave, does it qualify under the law, how much time does the employee have left under family leave vs. how much time the employee is going to be out. And we have 15,000 employees and every situation is different," says Libby Sartain, director of employee benefits for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines.

Others are upset about details of the interim regulations -- final regulations are expected within two months -- under which the law is being enforced. Chief among them is what they consider an overly broad definition of a serious health condition. Under the regulations, a three-day absence and continuing medical treatment can trigger a leave -- a definition likely to be changed in the final regulations, Ms. Echaveste says.

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