Additions to the FMLA

New rules have been added to the Family and Medical Leave Act.  Read more after the jump.

Leave benefits expand for military families

The Labor Department has written new rules to expand Family and Medical Leave Act benefits that represent a dramatic change in how National Guard and reserve members and caregivers responsible for seriously injured troops will be treated by employers.

One benefit, which applies immediately, allows up to 26 weeks of unpaid time off without fear of losing a civilian job for spouses, parents, siblings, children or other blood relatives taking care of seriously injured or disabled service members. The one catch is that it only applies while the injured service member is still in the military, and ends after separation or discharge.

A second benefit, which employers have 60 days to implement, allows families of mobilized Guard and reserve members up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, with their job fully protected, for a variety of deployment-related reasons, including attending military briefings, handling legal or financial issues, emergency child care arrangements and even taking a vacation of up to five days if the service member gets mid-deployment rest and recuperation leave.

Families of active-duty members are not eligible for the deployment-related time off because Congress did not authorize it, Labor Department officials said.

Joy Dunlap of the Military Officers Association of America said the two additions to the Family and Medical Leave Act, known as FMLA, will be a great boon to families who are struggling with the demands of ongoing military operations. But blocking active-duty families from the deployment leave is something her association plans to challenge, she said.

"They included a wide variety of things, and I think this is going to be very positive for the family members of those covered," Dunlap said. "This will help them to take care of important household matters and help them protect marriages, and will help retention of service members."

Dunlap also cautioned that Family and Medical Leave Act benefits are not available to everyone. Generally, benefits are provided only to workers at companies with 50 or more employees who are full-time workers with at least a year on the job, she said.

Victoria Lipnic, assistant labor secretary for employment standards, said the rules attempt to be as generous as possible under limitations of the law but acknowledged there are restrictions. "We were as generous as we could be," she said.

Caregiver leave has been authorized under FMLA since January, but regulations explaining how companies are supposed to apply it have only now been finalized, Lipnic said. Under the rules, a caregiver can take up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave over one year, with the clock beginning on the first day of leave.

The policy allows leave to be taken only once per injury, but more than one person in a family might qualified. If there is a second injury or a subsequent diagnosis of a new problem, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the benefit could be used again, Lipnic said.

While FMLA applies to a limited group of immediate family members, military caregiver leave has a broader definition under which spouses, siblings, parents, children and next-of-kin - the nearest blood relative - could qualify. In extended families, more than one blood relative could receive the leave, Lipnic said.

The deployment leave program, which applies to Guard and reserve families, is aimed at people whose lives are "turned upside down" and who "have a lot of issues to deal with," Lipnic said.

There are several broad categories in which the leave can be used, she said. For example, unpaid leave could be taken if the Guard or reserve member must deploy with less than seven days' notice; attend military-related events like briefings; accommodate school activities or emergency child care; make financial or legal arrangements; attend counseling, which would not necessarily have to be provided by a health care provider; ot attend post-deployment events, such as arrival ceremonies and briefings.

Regulations also have a catch-all clause that allows time off for other events not covered if the employer and employee agree, Lipnic said.

In what may become one of the more controversial aspects of the new rules, unpaid leave could be used for up to five days of vacation if the service member received rest and recuperation leave while deployed. The five-day leave would be provided each time the service member receives R&R.

Lipnic said the deployment leave provisions were worked out after discussions with military associations and the Defense Department. While regulations are being published now, employers technically do not have to provide deployment leave until January because they have 60 days to implement the regulations, she said.

A key reason the rules are being expanded for military families was 2007 testimony before a House subcommittee by the wife of an injured Army sergeant.

Sarah Wade, the wife of Army Sgt. Edward Wade, told a House panel that after her husband was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, she tried to hold on to her restaurant job in Chapel Hill, N.C., while making three trips a week to visit her husband, who was being treated 250 miles away at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Wade said she was fired after about 15 months for being away from work too much and also was forced to drop out of college.

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