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Family and Medical Leave Act Joins GOP Hit List

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After attacking overtime, Social Security and an array of workers' rights, the Bush administration has now moved the Family and Medical Leave Act near the top of its hit list.

The White House and its GOP allies in Congress want to water down, if not undo entirely, the law pushed and signed by President Bill Clinton that has allowed more than 50 million people since 1993 to take unpaid leave to deal with their own or a family member's serious illness or care for a newborn or newly adopted children.

"It was a godsend," Patti Phillips of Atlanta told a Senate roundtable discussion June 23, explaining that she used small portions of the allowed 12 weeks of leave to take her 12-year-old daughter, who was battling bone cancer, to chemotherapy sessions. "In the last two months of her life, I was able to be there 24-7."

The law only serves about 40 percent of the private sector workforce. Labor and other activist groups have fought to expand it, while businesses have tried to undermine it from the beginning. Now the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the businesses they represent believe they have enough friends in the White House and on Capitol Hill to make the law substantially harder for workers to use.

Employers claim workers are abusing the law and hurting productivity, though some executives admit in media reports that the number of problem employees is very small. Still, "Changing FMLA to address these problems is our No. 1 priority right now in terms of labor issues," Michael Eastman, head of labor policy at the chamber, said in a Bloomberg wire service report.

CWA President Morton Bahr said the current assault on FMLA started as a stealth attack. It became public only when Labor Secretary Elaine Chao responded to corporate complaints that her department wasn't moving fast enough to issue guidelines on its new overtime rules, which will allow employers to take time-and-a-half pay away from many workers.

"Secretary Chao said she was forced to move 45 employees who were working on the new regs over to work on revising the FMLA," Bahr said, speaking to a recent conference of activists in Washington, D.C. "That, my friends, is how we learned they were again bowing to corporate America and would come up with new definitions concerning the administration of FMLA.

"Thus, we are on the brink of turning the clock back to the days when parents had to risk their jobs in order to attend to a family member requiring care," he said.