Prioritizing Health: Unions Help Workers Access Family and Medical Leave

Jeanine Gaver, an Ohio woman who was fired after she underwent treatment for an aggressive form of breast cancer, filed a lawsuit last week, claiming her former employer violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The FMLA guaranteed Gaver, who worked as a radiology manager before her illness, up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave for her recovery. Yet when she returned to work in October 2011, she was stripped of her health insurance and pushed into a different position with fewer hours.  A short time later, she was fired.

Unfortunately, Gaver’s case is far from unique.  Sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Amy Armenia found in their 2009 study of the Family and Medical Leave Act that as few as 57 percent of companies are compliant with the law.  Many workers do not fully understand their rights, the researchers also discovered, making it easier for employers to get away with violating the FMLA.

Labor unions, Gertsel and Armenia found, are a key part of both compliance and ensuring workers get accurate information regarding their rights.  “Unions lobbied for legislative change and were central to the passage of the FMLA,” they said.  But more importantly, “unions provide the means to translate policy into action.”

The FMLA protects workers who need long-term medical treatments; must care for sick children, parents or spouses; or bring new children into their families through childbirth or adoption.  When workers take leave under the FMLA, they may not be demoted or fired for missing work.

Long-term leave can inconvenience employers, and they must continue to offer workers costly employer sponsored health insurance during the leave.  As a result, some attempt to block workers from taking leave or, as in Gaver’s case, retaliate when workers try to return to their jobs.

Because unions monitor employer compliance, workplaces with unionized employees are nearly twice as likely to honor the Family and Medical Leave Act, Gertsel and Armenia found.

Unions also make sure that employers follow through on their legal obligation to distribute information about the act, and as a result, union workers are half as likely to be unaware of their rights.

As a last resort, unions serve as advocates for workers who are denied their rights.  Workers can file a grievance through their unions if their employers violate the FMLA, and if it comes to outside litigation, unions help with that as well.

Even when workers know they are entitled to family or medical leave, and their employers don’t stand in the way, many can’t afford to take time off because the leave protected by the FMLA is unpaid. Unions also help with this issue.

According to “Family-Friendly Workplaces,” a report by the UC Berkeley Labor Center, “unionization makes leave-taking more feasible for workers by providing better paid leave benefits.”

Unionized workers are 17% more likely to receive full pay while on leave, according to the report.  Workers with union-negotiated contracts were also more likely than their non-union counterparts to receive partial pay when on leave.

While the FMLA protects certain types of workers, it still leaves a significant number   vulnerable. Gertsel and Armenia found that 53 percent of the American workforce is not eligible for long-term leave under the Act.

Businesses that employ fewer than 50 workers are not subject to the law, and part-time workers, who have not put in the required 1,250 hours in the last year, are not eligible for job-protected leave.

Leave to care for siblings, in-laws or same-sex partners is also not guaranteed under the FMLA.

Because of these deficiencies, there have been movements to reform and expand the act, which marked its twentieth anniversary this week.  There is now wide public support for granting more workers access to leave so that no one will be forced to choose between their family’s health and their job.

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