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Time to Expand, Not Gut, the FMLA

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I've been an activist since the 1960s. But it doesn't take long to figure out
how opponents of progressive legislation work. Although the names and
specifics change, they have a limited stock of arguments and a predictable set
of tactics.

First they warn: "If we pass [fill in the blank] bill, business will flee, the
sky will fall, and you'll hurt the very people you want to help." Then, when
our side's successful, they try to get around the law by not telling workers
about it, or finding ways to punish those who use it.

And as soon as possible, they try to undo it altogether.

February 5 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the signing into law of the Family
and Medical Leave Act. We should be celebrating our work to make it available
and affordable to many more people -- more than half the private sector
workforce isn't covered, for instance, and more than two million a year who are
covered can't take the time because it's unpaid. The definition of family is
really narrow. And the law doesn't include routine illness.

But the opponents of family values at work just won't give up. Now they're
trying to gut the FMLA through an end run of changing the regulations.

Twice in recent years I've testified before Congress on whether or not this law
needs changing. Each time I sat at a table with some of the same opponents who
said passing such a bill would ruin business. Now they were trying a different
tack. FMLA? Great bill, this one used it when she had a new baby, that one when
his mom had a heart attack. It was mainly fine, but needed a little tweaking.

And what would those tweaks be?

For starters, the opponents would like to clarify that serious illnesses don't
include pesky chronic conditions. Really, they testified, someone gets a little
headache or has a little asthma attack and think they can just stay home.

Those little headaches, in case you're wondering, are known as migraines. My
mother used to get them from time to time. They knocked her out. But as long as
she had a dark room and some medication, she'd be up and at'em the following
day.

And then there's asthma. An attack can literally be life-threatening.
Fortunately, most people will be okay, some after just a few hours, once
they're able to get treatment.

The opponents don't stop here. They're want to end to the terrible inconvenience
of administering intermittent leave. Really, they say, if you have to take off,
take the whole day, not just an hour or less.

Well, let's say you're going for chemotherapy, or physical therapy. You may need
to be absent only for a short time. Surely your co-workers and employer will
benefit if you can come back to work that day. Most of us would much prefer not
to lose a whole day's pay if we don't have to.

Forcing people to take a bigger chunk of time off is really a way of saying,
don't take it at all.

Here's what gets me: all these efforts to gut or whittle the FMLA make us
struggle to hang on to what we already won, in the hopes that we'll forget how
meager that was in the first place. The rest of the world, including the
developing world, has left us in the dust.

On this anniversary, let's redouble our efforts to EXPAND the FMLA to what it
should be: a way to make sure that no one has to risk a job to care for a
loved one, or put loved ones at risk in order to keep a job.

Ellen Bravo is a feminist activist and author. Her most recent book is "Taking
on the Big Boys, or Why Feminism is Good for Families, Business and the
Nation." www.ellenbravo.com