Today we announced that national restaurant chain T.G.I. Fridays has agreed to change its employee leave policy to be in compliance with the Family and Medical Leave Act. The move affects thousands of employees at locations across the U.S. The company has also agreed to pay back wages to an employee in Louisiana after failing to reinstate the employee to the same or equivalent position following FLMA-covered leave, and not allowing the employee to return to work immediately.
Workers should not have to choose between their jobs, and their health or the health and welfare of family members who need their care. That is the core belief behind the FMLA, which provides America’s workers the right to take unpaid, job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks to care for themselves or a loved one while maintaining full health care coverage. It also guarantees that a worker can return to the job at the same level with the same pay and benefits.
Millions of American workers and their families have benefited since the FMLA’s provisions became effective 20 years ago this week. In the first year-and-a-half after it became available, it’s estimated that between 1.5 and 3 million Americans took FMLA-covered leave to care for themselves or a loved one. Twenty years later, FMLA leave has been used nearly 100 million times, and research shows that the FMLA has not imposed an undue burden on employers.
But the FMLA must evolve to keep pace with the changing face of the modern family. In 2010, the department clarified that workers who assume the role of guardians – including grandparents and gay parents – receive parental rights to family leave, regardless of legal or biological relationship to the child. Earlier this year, we recognized that the FMLA could be used to care for an adult child with a mental or physical disability, ensuring compatibility with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
We also expanded military family leave provisions this year, and incorporated a special eligibility provision for airline flight crew employees. My agency, the department’s Wage and Hour Division (responsible for enforcing the act), is currently working with the Department of Justice to review our FMLA guidance to see if changes are necessary to ensure consistency with the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA.
Watch former President Clinton discuss the FMLA, 20 years after signing it into law.
As we move into the act’s third decade, we are increasing our outreach to educate employers and workers about the law as well as stepping up enforcement efforts. When we review FMLA compliance practices during our routine workplace investigations, we examine how companies communicate with employees about their FMLA policies.
Covered employers are required to provide certain notices to their employees about their rights under FMLA. The T.G.I. Fridays policy did not include information on the FMLA’s military family leave provisions or information on the right to take FMLA-covered leave on an intermittent or reduced schedule basis, and misstated the 12-month employment requirement for FMLA eligibility as being 12 continuous months. If employers like T.G.I. Fridays provide incomplete or inaccurate information to their employees about the FMLA, it can prevent eligible employees from understanding and exercising their rights.
In every case, large or small, we try to work with the employer to prevent future violations. This month, aircraft manufacturer Hawker-Beechcraft agreed to resolve allegations of violating the FMLA by paying three wrongfully terminated workers more than $48,000 in back wages. The company also agreed to provide training for its 6,000 employees about their rights under the act. And earlier this year, an energy company in Alaska was ordered to reinstate and pay $43,000 in back wages to a worker fired under an erroneous leave policy. That company also has agreed to change its policy going forward.
On the 20th anniversary of the FMLA’s enactment in February, President Obama challenged us to “recommit ourselves to the values that inspired the law and redouble our efforts on behalf of fairer workplaces and healthier, more secure families.” As today’s announcement makes clear, we are dedicated to ensuring the FMLA’s protections are honored in workplaces across the country and more American families are being made secure as a result.
Laura Fortman is the principal deputy administrator of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.