04/17/2013 04:10 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2013

The Family and Medical Leave Act: 20 Years of Working for Working Families

Twenty years ago, Congress enacted into law a simple and fundamental principle: workers should not have to choose between the job they need, and the family members they love and who need their care. The Family and Medical Leave Act allows covered workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for certain scenarios, such as a serious health condition; to bond with a newborn, newly adopted or newly placed child; or to care for a seriously ill child, spouse or parent.

But what happens to workers when employers do not comply with the FMLA? Imagine you are at home recovering from surgery when you learn that your company has been sold and the new owners have fired you, ending your health care benefits. This nightmare scenario happened to a worker in Arizona named Peter (whose last name is being withheld for privacy reasons).

Peter worked as a delivery driver for O Premium Waters, a Mesa, Ariz.-based bottled water delivery company. He needed surgery, so he gave notice to his employer that he would need time off from his job for the procedure and recovery. O Premium correctly approved and designated his time off as FMLA-protected leave.

Just two days after Peter went on FMLA leave, O Premium sold most of its assets to DS Waters of America, an Atlanta-based company doing business as Sparkletts. Shortly after the sale, Sparkletts told Peter he would not have a job with them. Because he was no longer employed, his O Premium-provided health benefits expired. Peter was left to pay for his medical costs out of pocket.

But while Peter had been let go, Sparkletts had hired almost all of the other drivers formerly employed by O Premium and continued to make deliveries to O Premium's customers. This put Sparkletts on the wrong side of the law in this case. The FMLA continues to protect individuals like Peter when a company changes hands but continues to run the same or similar business by extending to the successor company the obligation to comply with the law's requirements.

The FMLA's protections meant Peter was entitled to have his and his family's health insurance maintained, and when it was not, he was entitled to compensation for those expenses that he incurred out-of-pocket. Peter also was entitled to be reinstated to the same or equivalent position with the successor company.

My agency, the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, is responsible for enforcing the FMLA, so we conducted an investigation of Sparkletts. Upon finding evidence of violations, we explained the law to Sparkletts and provided the company with an opportunity to remedy the violations by reinstating Peter and compensating him for lost wages. When Sparkletts refused, we sued the company in federal district court.

Ultimately, Sparkletts agreed to settle the litigation by agreeing to a consent judgment, under which the court ordered the company to pay Peter more than $58,000 in lost wages and medical expenses. The court further ordered that Peter be offered reinstatement to an equivalent position with retroactive seniority.

While we can never erase the personal challenges that Peter had to deal with as a result of the FMLA violations, this case is a victory. And not just for him, but for all employees and all working families who rely on us to enforce their rights under the FMLA.

But what I can't help but think about is how much better everything would have been for Peter and Sparkletts if the company had understood its obligations and complied the law without our intervention.

According to a recent study, the vast majority of employers (91 percent) report that complying with the FMLA either has no noticeable effect or has a positive effect on business operations such as employee absenteeism, turnover and morale. Ninety percent of workers return to their employer after FMLA leave, showing little risk to businesses that investment in a worker will be lost as a result of leave granted under the act. That's the story that we want to tell.

We know how important the FMLA is to America's workers. Former President Bill Clinton, who joined our FMLA anniversary celebration in February, shared how people have approached him over the years to thank him for signing the act because its protections helped them get through incredibly challenging situations.

The Wage and Hour Division is always ready to help employers comply with the law, and we take our enforcement responsibilities seriously. Together, let's make the next 20 years even more successful for the working men and women of this country, and for the families who depend on them.

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