Business lobbyists have targeted changes in the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as a priority for 2008, according to an article in the December 2New York Times. The National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are among that seek to narrow the definition of a “serious health condition” or establish stricter requirements for taking intermittent leave for chronic conditions that flare up unexpectedly. The manufacturer’s association believes that the law has been abused and has caused “a staggering loss of work hours” as employees have taken unscheduled, intermittent time off for health conditions that could not be verified.

These influencers of public policy have identified a symptom, but their proposed solution will only serve to aggravate the stress that workers experience in trying to accommodate the demands of their increasingly complex lives. Data shows that 85 percent of workers have day-to-day family responsibilities; nearly half of workers are parents with children under the age of 18; nearly 20 percent of employed parents are single; and 25 percent of workers provide elder care.  Finally, half of all private sector workers have no paid sick time. It is likely that these employees must turn to FMLA to take time off and be able to retain their jobs.

The FMLA was passed in 1993 and provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborn children or sick relatives, or to tend to medical problems of their own, for people who work for a company with 50 or more employees. This law was designed to respond to the needs of a quickly changing workforce. Leaders of Fel-Pro (the Lehman family who founded Winning Workplaces were co-owners) were present when President Bill Clinton signed the law, and at that time Paul Lehman stated, “Businesses across America should embrace rather than fear family leave and other work and family benefits. They, in combination with other enlightened management practices, will help make U.S. companies fully capable of competing in our global business environment.”

As we learn again and again from the Top Small Workplaces that we honor, supporting employees to meet both personal and professional responsibilities has clear business benefits. 2007 Winner Guerra DeBerry Coody, a Texas-based marketing and communications firm, states on its website “We believe in family.” According to Tess Coody, partner in the company, “We started our business about the same time that the FMLA became law. With only four employees – one of them pregnant – FMLA was in the backdrop as just another political football. As we grew, the real work was designing workplace policies that aligned our needs as employers with the needs of employees.” Today, they have more than 70 employees – most of them working mothers. The firm provides paid maternity and family leave, far exceeding the requirements of FMLA.

“Our recruitment costs? Next to nothing. Our retention rate? Better than 99 percent. Our growth pattern? Off the charts. Doing the right thing by people is a priceless business practice that means a direct, positive impact on our bottom line,” Coody says.

Their firm is not alone in this experience. A 2000 Department of Labor report on family and medical leave, reported by the National Partnership for Women and Families, found that FMLA had “either no effect or a positive effect” on employers in terms of productivity, profitability and growth. Further, the program had either no increase in cost or a small increase in terms of administrative costs, the costs of continuing benefits, and hiring and training costs. Finally, in at least 81 percent of businesses, intermittent family and medical leave has no impact on productivity and profitability.

“Frankly, as a small business owner and working mother, I am embarrassed that the opponents of FMLA are represented as ‘the business community.’ No one can tell me that providing time off to working families to help them balance the spillover between work and family is bad for business,” Coody says. “We have lived these practices for 12 years and seen our net revenue grow by 30 percent each year, even as we’ve provided far more flexibility and support than is mandated by the law. If anything, we should do more to help the 40 percent of Americans uncovered by FMLA. And I promise you it can be good for business.”