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3 Ways to Improve the Family and Medical Leave Act to Better Serve Military Families

President Barack Obama

SOURCE: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama greets members of the military and their family members in the East Room of the White House on Tuesday, April 12, 2011, after the launch of Joining Forces, the national initiative to support and honor America's service members and their families.

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With today’s 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, it is appropriate to reflect on the ways that President Barack Obama has built on President Bill Clinton’s legacy of promoting balance between work and home and recognizing our changing family structure through legislation, especially for the military. Since 2010 President Obama has ensured that the Family and Medical Leave Act empowers military families to care for service members in times of illness and injury, and that they are guaranteed time to cope with the stresses that deployments place on families.

The military provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act are now more generous to military family members than they were in 1993, offering them 26 workweeks to care for a service member suffering from an injury or illness incurred in the line of duty, and 12 weeks to deal with child care, legal, and administrative issues that result from a military deployment. These provisions naturally fall in line with the act’s core qualification standards, which state that in order to be eligible for FMLA protections, an employee must:

  • Have been on the job for at least one year
  • Have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year (about 24 hours a week)
  • Work for an employer with 50 or more employees living within 75 miles of the worksite

But there are inherent problems with the Family and Medical Leave Act’s military provisions in definition, implementation, and evaluation. Here are three significant improvements the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Defense can make this year to ensure that the act’s military family leave provisions have their full-intended impact:

Redefine “spouse” to include same-sex partners

A service member’s health and mission readiness is not just physical, emotional, or even spiritual. Retired Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, affirmed that “total force fitness” also includes a service member’s “family and social relationships.” But because of the Defense of Marriage Act’s restrictions on the word “spouse,” the Department of Defense is prohibited from recognizing spouses of gay and lesbian troops as “family members,” meaning these spouses are ineligible for military family leave entitlements under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Especially given President Obama’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2012, it is absurd that same-sex military couples are not guaranteed any such protections under the law if a service member is injured or ill. This creates a true barrier to a portion of the force being holistically healthy, cared for, and ready to accomplish their missions.

The Obama administration, with substantial support from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the next secretary of defense, should immediately pressure Congress to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act as it discriminates against same-sex spouses and prevents them from being able to care for their injured or ailing loved ones with the same protections as traditionally defined military family members.

Reduce the qualifications for spouses

The lifestyle of the military spouse is far from standard—as Anne-Marie Slaughter recently pointed out in The Atlantic, Holly Petraeus, the wife of retired Gen. David Petraeus, moved 23 times in more than 30 years. Frequent moves often require a spouse to uproot their careers to start fresh somewhere possibly unfamiliar and unsuited to their skill set, and accruing enough time to qualify for leave under the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act becomes severely if not impossibly reduced. It follows that the Family and Medical Leave Act standards should be less stringent for active-duty spouses, or for reserve and National Guard spouses who can prove their relocation was due to deployment.

There is a need for a more equitable standard that meets with the demands that duty relocation places on a military spouse. A six-month/625-hour standard for both full-and part-time employees working for a covered employer would be more achievable for a newly relocated spouse, for example. Already the White House’s Joining Forces initiative has made strides for military spouses to take their careers from one duty station to the next. The Family and Medical Leave Act’s military provisions should similarly be applied to ease the possible strain of multiple relocations and deployments.

Enforce the spirit of the Family and Medical Leave Act 100 percent

What if when our service members took their oath upon enlistment or commissioning, they pledged only 88.5 percent of themselves to defending our Constitution? Or 90.8 percent? Or even 97.1 percent? It’s a ridiculous proposition. They pledge 100 percent of themselves and are held accountable to that commitment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But those numbers above are real and they speak to the private labor force and the U.S. government’s level of commitment to ensuring military family members can care for their service member and cope with deployments.

These numbers reflect the results of a new line of questions about the efficacy of the Military Family Provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which were recently published in the Family and Medical Leave in 2012 Technical Report and submitted to the Department of Labor. According to the report, at best, 88.5 percent of Family and Medical Leave Act-covered employers, for example, would allow leave to care for an injured or ill service member, or for reasons related to deployment. Of worksites uncovered by the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act, that number drops to 65.9 percent. The percentages are only slightly better when the survey weights answers based on the number of “employees at worksite.”

What the report fails to explain is why a covered employer wouldn’t provide 100 percent coverage for a military family member. In fact, it seems that isn’t even the purpose of the study. Whether weighted by worksite or weighted by number of employees, it is unacceptable that any Family and Medical Leave Act-covered worksite would report less than 100 percent coverage for a military family member coping with their service member’s illness, injury, or deployment. When commissioning future studies of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Department of Labor has an obligation to service members and their families to go beyond simple “yes or no” questioning, and must fully investigate the gaps in coverage and then enact policies to fix those gaps.

Conclusion

When legislators and the Department of Defense take steps to resolve these issues, attention can then be turned toward other broader issues with military family provisions and the Family and Medical Leave Act in general. Two such issues include addressing the needs of the roughly 40 percent of uncovered private-sector workers and expanding elder care and paternity leave as a national standard. The extent to which these two issues affect military families is unclear, which is a problem unto itself. Since the Department of Labor solicits information about uncovered employers and employees, surely the next step is to use that information to address the concerns of these employers when it comes to hiring and providing leave to military family members.

2012 was a year of unprecedented recognition for our troops, veterans, and their families. First Lady Michelle Obama said, “You all represent the very best this country has to offer.” Now is the time to offer them the very best. Now is the time for swift legislative action and due diligence in reporting and fixing gaps in services and programs such as the Family and Medical Leave Act’s military family leave provisions. It is by taking action to ease the burden of their sacrifice that we can truly honor military families.

Eryn Sepp is the Special Assistant to the Chair and Counselor at American Progress, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and a U.S. Marine Corps spouse. With appreciation to Sarah Jane Glynn for help preparing this column.

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