By Lisa Horn (@SHRMLobbystLisa), SHRM’s Senior Government Relations Advisor

By now you’ve heard that this week (Feb. 5) marked the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This landmark federal leave statute has no doubt afforded countless new parents opportunities to bond with children while allowing other employees time off to recover from major health issues or to care for seriously ill loved ones – all without fear of losing a job.

As someone who has twice benefited from FMLA leave, I can’t help but toast the statute’s 20th anniversary and the peace of mind it has provided to so many. On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to the HR professionals I serve, who routinely share with me the challenges they encounter administering FMLA leave.
So how did such a well-intentioned law end up being such a nightmare for organizations to implement? Unfortunately, what began as a fairly simple 12-page document has become 200 pages of complex regulations – a counter-productive attempt to anticipate and micro-manage every situation in every workplace in every industry – without regard for the evolving and diverse needs of today’s workforce, among other things.

Of all the rules and regulations HR professionals and their organizations must comply with, the FMLA may be the most vexing, which is probably why the SHRM Knowledge Center receives more inquiries about FMLA than any other federal statute. SHRM’s survey report illustrates many of the FMLA implementation challenges HR professionals encounter, with nearly half (47 percent) reporting difficulties when dealing with leave associated with an employee’s own medical condition, especially when the health issue is “episodic” in nature. The good news is that when it comes to FMLA leaves for births or adoptions, HR professionals experience far fewer challenges, likely because work operations can continue when absences are planned.

Given SHRM members’ experience with the FMLA, I was surprised (to put it mildly) to read this Department of Labor statement outlining key findings of its new survey “that shows employers generally find it easy to comply with the law, and misuse of the FMLA by workers is rare. The vast majority of employers, 91 percent, report that complying with the FMLA has either no noticeable effect or a positive effect on business operations such as employee absenteeism, turnover and morale.”

Whoa, what? How can that be when the HR professionals who are directly responsible for FMLA compliance have such a radically different experience?

To be clear, neither SHRM nor our members want to dismantle the FMLA and the benefits it affords American families. For years, SHRM has championed modifications and clarifications to the Act’s implementing regulations to improve leave administration in the workplace and to ensure the Act’s integrity by combatting misuse of FMLA leave. Simply put, after 20 years of experience, HR professionals continue to cite real challenges with certain (not all) FMLA provisions and SHRM believes these should be addressed.

At the same time, SHRM is leading a new conversation about workplace flexibility public policy in this country – one that is free of rigid government mandates so organizations can create innovative and more flexible ways to meet the needs of their employees. Our Principles for a 21st Century Workplace Flexibility Public Policy provide a roadmap to incentivize employers to voluntarily adopt flexible work arrangements and leave programs that may even go beyond FMLA benefits, ensuring public policy works for both employers and employees…….Now that deserves another toast!

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