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Debra L. Ness

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At Stake: A Fundamental Protection for Millions of Workers

Posted: 01/12/12 01:09 PM ET

It may be the single most important law ever passed to address the needs of workers trying to meet their work and family responsibilities. And this week, in the midst of an economic downturn that has made job protection especially critical, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could undermine one of its core provisions. The justices' decision will determine whether millions of state government workers will have the fundamental right to take job-protected, unpaid leave when they are seriously ill.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) became law nearly 20 years ago. It was designed to help address the rampant discrimination women faced in the workplace due to their caregiving responsibilities and their ability to get pregnant. We at the National Partnership know this well. We drafted and led the fight to pass the critical legislation.

By ensuring that all eligible workers in the public and private sectors could take job-protected, unpaid time off to recover from their own serious medical conditions and those of their families, the FMLA has made a huge difference in the lives of millions of workers. It has allowed them to keep their families safe and healthy without sacrificing their livelihoods and economic security.

New mothers and fathers have been able to take time to bond with their newborns or newly adopted children. Adult children have been able to help their elderly parents recover from serious medical conditions or treatments. Women with complicated pregnancies have been able to stay home to improve their health and the health of their babies. And men who have gotten seriously ill or injured have been able to take time to recover. Since its passage, the law has been used more than 100 million times in situations like these.

So when Maryland state worker Daniel Coleman requested time off under the FMLA to recover from a serious health condition, he didn't expect a problem. After all, his doctor had prescribed two weeks of bed rest.

He didn't expect to be fired the next day.

And he didn't expect that this simple request would flip his life upside down.

Sadly, that's exactly what happened.

In the nearly seven months of unemployment that followed, Coleman struggled to provide for his family, including his two college-aged sons. He exhausted his 401k.

Knowing his rights had been violated, and appalled that other state workers may have suffered the same injustice, Coleman decided to challenge the state of Maryland. Now, the Supreme Court will decide if the state can be held accountable for its unlawful actions - and whether all state workers are protected by the self-care provision of the FMLA.

The questions before the Supreme Court have to do with Congress' intent. Did lawmakers intend to remedy sex discrimination by enacting the FMLA? And did they intend for state workers to be covered by the law?

The answer to both is unquestionably "yes" -- and that is why it is imperative that the Court vindicate the rights of Daniel Coleman and, in doing so, uphold state workers' rights to self-care leave under the FMLA.

In 1993, the Court considered this very question as it related to the FMLA's family-care provision. In Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, in a ruling penned by then-Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Court rightfully found that Congress intended to grant state workers family-care leave under the FMLA. The Court should rule the same way about self-care in this case.

The National Partnership led a coalition of 10 top civil and workers' rights organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief that makes this very argument. We urge the Court to uphold self-care rights for state workers based on congressional intent.

What is at stake in this case is whether the Supreme Court will respect Congress' ability to make laws designed to remedy pervasive and unconstitutional discrimination, and whether millions of state workers can continue to count on FMLA leave when they get sick. Only one ruling is acceptable: that the state of Maryland be held accountable for firing a hardworking employee who simply asked for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to recover from a serious medical condition.

For more information on Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, visit www.NationalPartnership.org/Coleman.