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A Publication of WTVP

In 1993, the United States Congress enacted a bill called the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In basic terms, the law issued that covered employers must grant an eligible employee up to a total of 12 work weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for one or more reasons: the birth and care of the newborn child of the employee, for adoption or foster care, the care of an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition, or to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.

The intent of the law was to strike some balance between work and home-related issues by providing a job-protected leave. The law isn’t perfect, but it does provide some important rights to the employee. It was also set up with a basically good balance, as both the employee and the employer share the burden. Granted, most of the burden is taken on by the employee, but since the matter is personal in nature, the burden balance is a correct one.

However, in an unprecedented move, Gov. Gray Davis of California recently signed a bill to grant most Californians paid time off for these types of situations through the Family Temporary Disability Insurance (FTDI) bill. California is the first state in the nation to enact such legislation.

Basically, employees will receive approximately 55 percent of their salary for six weeks of leave to care for a new child or ill family member under the program. Applying to any employer, regardless of size, FTDI will be funded entirely by mandatory employee payroll deductions into the California State Disability Insurance system (SDI). Payroll deductions and paid leaves will begin in 2004. An employee who doesn’t pay into SDI won’t be eligible for FTDI. While FTDI is a wage replacement benefit, it also specifically provides it doesn’t abridge any rights existing under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), which also largely mirrors the FMLA. Thus, an FMLA- or CFRA-eligible employee will have the same reinstatement rights at the end of an FTDI leave.

Davis argued paid leave results in happier, more focused employees who might otherwise be forced to quit their jobs because of a family emergency. In addition, he claims the legislation imposes the financial burden for the benefit solely on California employees. On its face, that’s true. There are, however, hidden costs associated with the benefit that the employer will bear: the financial costs of replacement workers and training costs that go with it, additional overtime to cover absent employees, business disruption and a loss of productivity resulting from an employee’s absence, and the competitive disadvantage in attracting businesses and skilled workers to the state.

Though these are legitimate concerns for the employer, what scares them most is this is stepping-stone legislation that will eventually mandate they share a financial burden equal to or more than that of the SDI. Once the mandatory employee deductions increase from the estimated $27 a year per employee—and they will—the next set of pockets the state will look at will be business owners. Though California employees can decide whether to be involved in the program at this time, businesses are usually told they have no choice. Moreover, to make a commercial business responsible for a personal choice just doesn’t make sense.

You may ask why is this subject important to central Illinois? Give it a few years; this type of legislation has a way of heading east. IBI

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