The abbreviation FMLA stands for the Family Medical Leave Act, a federal law that was signed in the beginning of the 1990s. This law has multiple functions the most important of which are contributing to social justice in the workplace and providing the US citizens with an opportunity to establish healthy work-life balance when needed. In addition, this law is dedicated to the protection of rights of working mothers, employed pregnant women, and the people who take care of their relatives due to their poor health. At the same time, regardless of its numerous positive outcomes, the Act became a focus of debates and arguments due to its other impacts on employees and their employers, as well as its effectiveness in general. Practically, to a certain extent, the Act served as a controversy and a source of discussions since its true effects on the involved stakeholders were difficult to project. Ever since the Act was first introduced, its impact was carefully observed and its consequences – researched. This paper provides a detailed discussion of the FMLA and some of its major aspects such as its background, content, history, as well as its purpose and impacts on organizations and employees.
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The Family Medical Leave Act represents a complex phenomenon that occurred as a response of the United States government to a dangerous social trend of discriminatory workplace practices that harmed certain groups of employees. Attempting to address and minimize the immoral and harmful tendency, the government created the FMLA that provided benefits and protection to vulnerable populations. Reviewing this legislation, it is necessary to explore the situation that was in place prior to the introduction of the Act and compare it with its consequences.
The Family Medical Leave Act was first introduced in 1993 (Guerin & England, 2015). Prior to the introduction of this act, it was a common tendency for women to lose their jobs due to pregnancies and the need to care for young children (Keels, 2006). The same went for people whose relatives required support due to their health status. Taking leaves, such individuals exposed themselves to risks of getting fired from their workplaces. In fact, the risks related to the loss of jobs by women who took leaves for one month or longer to have a child eventually led to two common negative outcomes. First of all, working women had poorer career prospects and opportunities because the situation forced them to choose between careers and families. The second outcome was linked to women’s intentional endangerment of their health for the purpose of ending their sick leaves as soon as possible. Coming back to work too soon after giving birth to a child, female employees faced multiple health risks and exposed their new babies to threats as well. As a result, due to the multiple negative consequences of the tendency that used to be in place prior to the introduction of the Family Medical Leave Act, the United States government realized that change was required.
The major purpose of the FMLA was to establish fair treatment in the workplace and helped the workers, whose life situation forced them to take leaves, to keep their jobs (Keels, 2006). Practically, there were several negative outcomes of the social and economic tendency that occurred before the FMLA and the Act was designed and intended specifically to address these phenomena. In particular, the Act was aimed at the establishment of a healthier work-life balance for some groups of working citizens (Keels, 2006). Due to this law, the eligible people and families became able to set and maintain a safer and more harmonious relationship between their personal and professional spheres of life.
The major goal of the Act was the creation of stability and financial security for American families and individual citizens. Enforcing the Family Medical Leave Act, the United States government demonstrated its dedication to the preservation of integrity and wholesomeness of families (Post & Siegel, 2003). However, due to its complexity, the Act has seen several different responses in terms of its potential impacts on various stakeholder groups. Differently put, as much as the eligible working citizens needed the sufficient amount of time off work to take care of their family members, their employers worried about the stability of their businesses. This was a logical reaction because the Act was likely to promote a more active leave-taking that could potentially produce a significant negative impact on the performance of organizations whose workers would take more days off than usually.
In general, there are several groups of the working population of the United States on which the Family Medical Leave Act is focused in particular. The populations targeted by this Act were recognized as some of the most vulnerable when it came to finding and keeping employment or achieving financial security and independence. The unfair treatment of these groups in many workplaces all around the country, as well as common discrimination against such employees, served as the major cause for the creation and enforcement of this law.
Who Is Covered
Employed individuals who are in a serious need of taking time off work due to health issues or the obligation to care for their family members, as well as pregnant women and new mothers are eligible for this law. Under the Family Medical Leave Act, such individuals are permitted to take up to 12 weeks of work as unpaid leaves (Guerin & England, 2015). In other words, the employees who have issues related to their health or the health of their relatives are covered by the Act. Pregnant women and women who have just had a baby are covered equally with individuals who recently adopted a child and need to spend more time with their family in order to take care of their personal responsibilities and duties (Post & Siegel, 2003).
Moreover, alongside the individuals who are covered by the Act due to the need to care for their seriously ill relatives, the people who suffer from serious illnesses themselves are covered as well. This way, the necessary time is provided to the aforementioned groups of employees for these people to be able to balance their personal lives, health, and careers at the same time.
Why They Are Covered
Under the Family Medical Leave Act, employers are prohibited from firing their workers due to their leave-taking. Such actions are considered unlawful and discriminatory. Prior to the introduction of this law, there existed a common practice of firing women who went on sick leave to have a child or people who were absent due to the need to take care of a seriously ill family member. Moreover, the attitude towards working mothers of young children was negative because of the likeliness of their future leave-taking driven by the children’s health issues. Many organizations refused to employ women for these reasons. As a result, women, in general, had poorer career prospects and had fewer chances to become successful in their career fields while trying to build and maintain families (Post & Siegel, 2003).
Due to this tendency, the integrity of families in the United States was under threat because many women were forced to make a choice. As a result, many emancipated modern women preferred financial independence and chose careers over motherhood and married life. Looking at a bigger picture, it is possible to notice that the tendency was quite significant and influential. It had a powerful effect on the views of the American men and women on the value of careers, self-development, and opportunities in life compared to those of creating and supporting a family. In other words, a new social trend was born that made the United States citizens reevaluate their attitudes towards jobs and family life. In this highly competitive capitalist society powered by the individualist culture, many women put aside their potential roles as mothers and wives in order to focus on work and make an impact as professionals.
FMLA Impact on Employers
Since the Act was first introduced, many employers have been worried about the potential impact it may produce on the performance of their firms due to the increased rates of leave-taking (Waldfogel, 1999). Indeed, this was a possibility because a frequent leave-taking could potentially lead to a slowdown in organizational functions due to the loss of productivity of employees. In addition, there was a threat that a larger number of permitted days off per year could cause the organizational morale, engagement, and culture to weaken.
Impact on Business
One of the major concerns of the employers regarding the FMLA was the potential for the abuse of this law. Differently put, the owners of businesses afraid that the enforcement of the Act could lead to the employees’ frequent reliance on it that would cause an excessive leave-taking. In turn, the common absence of workers from their workplaces could create a strain on businesses due to the lack of a sufficient number of staff members during certain periods of the year. In such situations, the performance of firms and organizations with an increasing tendency for leave-taking would decrease. As a result, employers started to speak up against the potential for the abuse of the FMLA and the need for tools and strategies that could help them address this risk (“Employee turnover and retentions,” 2007).
Another common concern expressed by employers was linked to the impacts of the increased rate of leave-taking among workers on their retention and turnover. To be more specific, the owners of businesses worried that permitting more active absenteeism promoted by leave-taking, they would boost their worker’s intention to turnover because their corporate culture and organizational engagement could go down thus making them more detached from their organizations. However, research studies that were conducted throughout the last couple of decades showed that no significant losses were caused to businesses by the outcomes of the FMLA. In other words, the increased opportunity for leave-taking did not create any serious negative effects on the performance of businesses.
Impact on Workplace
From the ethical and social justice perspectives, the Act was beneficial as it helped to promote a healthy work-life balance for the employees in demanding and stressful life situations. At the same time, employers expressed concerns in regard to the impact that the FMLA could have on the employees’ morale. Potentially, frequent absence from a workplace could weaken the connection between employees and their organizations and management. This could serve as a factor destroying the workers’ integrity and dedication to their jobs and careers in general. Moreover, the absence of some of the staff members from the workplace could create a strain on the remaining workers as they would need to cover for their colleagues taking leaves of absence.
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Interestingly, while these concerns were real in some workplaces, in others – they had an opposite effect. To be more precise, in many organizations, the introduction of and the adherence to the FMLA resulted in the improvement of employee morale as workers felt more respected by their organizations (“Employee turnover and retentions,” 2007). Moreover, staff members in such organizations were willing to cover for their peers whose health and life situations required them to take leaves granted by the Act (“Employee turnover and retentions,” 2007).
FMLA Impact on Employees
Another important group of stakeholders involved in the enforcement of the Family Medical Leave Act was represented by workers. The Act was initially designed as legislation aimed at the change of workplace policies in order to create more convenient, fair, and balanced conditions for the employees. After the introduction of the Act, many employees were pleased by the change. The enforcement of this legislation led to the establishment of equal opportunities for different groups of workers and the minimization of workplace discrimination against vulnerable populations.
Attitudes to Leave-taking
Statistically, it was found that the rate of leave-taking increased noticeably since the FMLA became effective. This tendency can be contrasted to the previous reluctance to take leaves as it was disapproved by employers. However, discussing workers’ attitudes towards leave-taking, it is important to notice that the reluctance to go on unpaid leaves continued to persist because it was driven by a number of other factors apart from the permission of employers. For example, event after the Family Medical Leave Act became effective, may employees could not enjoy the benefits it provided due to the inability to afford to go without a paycheck for a certain period.
Apart from the refusal to take leaves provided by the FMLA, there existed a negative attitude towards the individuals who used their rights to days off work. In particular, the major issues was that the absence of certain workers made the remaining members of staff to cover for them by means of working longer shifts or taking over additional roles and tasks. It goes without saying that excessive workloads could result in a variety of negative outcomes for the employees including occupational stress, turnover intention, and burnout.
The Act was also intended as a protection for women who were treated unequally and whose employment could be terminated simply because they went on maternity leaves or cared for young children. Regardless of the protection of people in need of leaves and days off work provided by the FMLA, many employees were worried that the equal opportunity for employment could still produce a negative result on their wages. Logically, taking more unpaid days off, one was likely to receive a lower salary. The study carried out by Baum (2003) indicated that even though many workers in the United States used the benefits offered by the FMLA, there were not statistically significant negative impacts on their employment and wages.
Implications, Issues, and Challenges
Regardless of its noble purpose, the Act still has several weaknesses and shortcomings. For example, it does not protect representatives of low-income groups who cannot afford to take leaves and go without a paycheck for a while (Mory & Pistilli, 2001). In addition, another concern faced by employees who were in need of leaves revolved around the potential impact their absence from the workplace could create on their career development and opportunities. Even though the Act is designed to protect the employment of such workers, they could still lose their jobs due to the decreased effectiveness and productivity and becoming outperformed by their peers and colleagues.
Another implication of the Act was the response of employers. In particulars, the findings of surveys carried out in the middle of the 1990s and then again in 2000, the readiness of employers to provide days off to their workers decreased significantly over the years while the FMLA was in effect (Cantor et al., 2000). This tendency could be explained by the increased rates of leave-taking that occurred after the Act was introduced (Waldfogel, 1999). As the employers were obligated to agree to more days off, their readiness to provide leaves went down throughout the years. As a result, one of the main challenges created by the introduction of the Family Medical Leave Act was the potential for conflicts between workers and their employers. Practically, the purpose of the Act was to eliminate such clashes based on the levels of workers’ productivity sought by organizations and the employees’ need for occasional, and sometimes quite lengthy, unpaid leaves. However, the negative response of the employers was predictable since they represent the party interested in the maintenance of organizational performance. It took researchers years to collect enough data, observe the changes, and make a conclusion that, in reality, the impact made by the increased rates of leave-taking on organizational performance was insignificant.
Overall, the FMLA has produced multiple positive effects since the time it was first introduced. This Act is a law that pursued a noble goal of achieving social justice in the American workplaces. Offering benefits for the employees in the form of 12 permitted weeks of unpaid leaves granted to workers facing serious family situations, the Act alleviated the burden of balancing work and personal life. In addition, the law granted protection to vulnerable groups of employees and helped them preserve employment and avoid getting fired for taking the necessary time off work. At the same time, there are still challenges that the Act could not address. Some of them include the inability of workers with low levels of income to afford to take an unpaid leave, the damage that such leaves can cause to one’s career advancement prospects, and the strain that the absence of some employees can put on the others. Over the years of its existence, the Family Medical Leave Act has been amended several times, and it is possible that more changes might be introduced in the future in order to address the current drawbacks of this useful legislation.
Baum, C. L. (2003). The effect of state maternity leave legislation and the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act on employment and wages. Labor Economics, 10(5), 573-596.
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Mory, L., & Pistilli, M. (2001). The failure of the Family and Medical Leave Act: Alternative proposals for contemporary American families. Hofstra Labor and Employment Law Journal, 18(2), 689-720.
Post, R. C., & Siegel, R. B. (2003). Legislative constitutionalism and section five power: Policentric interpretation of the Family and Medical Leave Act. The Yale Law Journal, 112, 1943-2059.
Waldfogel, J. (1999). The impact of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 18(2), 281-302.